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The complex of religious beliefs and philosophical ideas that has developed out of the teachings of the Buddha (Sanskrit, "the Enlightened One"), the honorific title of the founder of Buddhism, the North Indian prince Siddhārtha Gautama. Beginning as a discipline for human deliverance from pain, it came to embrace various cults and sects. Buddhism broke into various schools from an early date. Many schisms stemmed from disputes over the rules of monastic conduct, while others had to do with philosophical or ideological differences. Beginning in the first century b.c., a complex of lay and monastic movements coalesced into a new form of Buddhism that referred to itself as the Bodhisattvayāna ("vehicle of the bodhisattvas") or mahĀyĀna ("great vehicle"), and to its opponents as the hĪnayĀna ("lesser vehicle"). Buddhism is not a strictly logical dogmatic system of beliefs and practices in the Western sense. Its adherents require of religion not that it be true rather than false, but that it be good rather than bad. The characteristic symbol of Buddhism is the "Wheel of the Law" (Dharma-Cakra ).

In modern times, in part under the impact of Western thought, the rise of theosophic neo-Buddhism is to be noted. The geographic expansion of Buddhism coincided with its ideological evolution. Since the Buddhism of each country assumed various forms and characteristics, it is necessary to treat it on a regional basis.


During the lifetime of the historical buddha (c. 563483 b.c.) Indian society and religion were undergoing extensive transformations. A sudden population increase, urbanization, the rise of a monetary economy, and the founding of centralized kingdoms in place of traditional tribal and clan society, led many to question the traditional religious sacrifices of the Vedas. Many began thinking for the first time about the fate of the individual after death, leading to the first formulations of the doctrine of reincarnation and karma as found in the Upaniads, and to the rise of many other new religious movements, of which Buddhism and Jainism are the only survivors. The proponents of these new ways of thinking were wandering mendicants who renounced the normal system of family and social ties in order to devote themselves to meditation and philosophical discourse.

Buddha. When the intellectual revolt, set forth in the Upaniads, had resulted in disintegration of thought and life, many wandering masters offered a way of salvation. According to tradition one of these was Siddhārtha (c. 563c. 483 b.c.), the son of Śuddhodana and Māyā Gautama, born at Lumbinī in the Nepāl Valley. He was publicly proclaimed the sage of the Śākya clan (Śākyamuni ) and the "Enlightened" (Buddha ). At 29 he renounced his wife and child to seek deliverance from the pain of human existence. After six years of practicing deep trance meditations and extreme self-mortification, he decided to chart his own path and sat under the Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gayā and attained both enlightenment and liberation from the endless round of birth and rebirth (samsāra ) by discovering the origin of suffering and the way to conquer it.

Before his death at Kuśinagara, Buddha formulated his doctrine and the rules for orders of monks and nuns. He taught that pain could be conquered by the knowledge and practice of the "Four Noble Truths"; (1) Human existence is pain, which (2) is caused by desire, and (3) can

be overcome by victory over desire (4) by means of the "Noble Eightfold Path." The Path consists in (1) right knowledge of the Four Noble Truths; (2) right resolve to curb malice; (3) right speech, true and kind; (4) right action, meaning to refrain from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct; (5) right livelihood, which meant that one could not earn one's living in a trade that by its nature involved bringing harm to others, such as trade in weapons, poisons, slaves, livestock, and so on; (6) right effort;(7) right mindfulness, or keeping the mind at all times serenely focused on the present moment; and (8) right meditation, which consists of four steps: isolation resulting in joy, meditation causing inner peace, concentration producing bodily happiness, and contemplation rewarded with indifference to happiness and misery.

The Buddha departed from the prevailing thought of his day by affirming the reality of rebirth in higher or lower states of life based on the moral quality of one's accumulated karma, but denying that there is a self (ātman ) that goes from body to body and life to life. It was self-contradictory, he said, to assert that the true self is an entity ensconced within the body which is eternal, unchanging, and partless but which nevertheless is affected and guided by karma. It was better not to think of the human person as an ongoing entity at all, but as a process that was ever-changing and whose relation to its own previous lives was one of continuity rather than identity. Thus, his followers came to see all living beings as aggregations of processes, both physical and mental (sensation, perception, consciousness, and mental constructions) that karma kept active just as firewood keeps the fire going, and the point of practice became to end the process (a goal called "nirvāna," or "extinguishing") rather than to liberate an inchoate entity.

Early order and councils. Any male who was not sick, disabled, a criminal, a soldier, a debtor, or a minor lacking parental consent could enter the order as a monk. The initiation ceremony comprised the renunciation (pabbajja ), the arrival, and the pledge to keep the four prohibitions against sexual intercourse, theft, harm to life, and boasting of superhuman perfection. The initiated was bound to observe the ten abstentions, i.e., from killing, stealing, lying, sexual intercourse, intoxicants, eating after midday, worldly amusements, using cosmetics and adornments, luxurious mats and beds, and from accepting gold or silver. Initiation, abstentions, and vows did not bind a monk for life, but only for the time he remained in the order. Daily exercises of the monks comprised

morning prayers, recitation of verses, outdoor begging, a midday meal followed by rest and meditation, and evening service. Fortnightly exercises consisted in observing a day of fast and abstinence (uposatha ) and in making a public confession of sins (pratimoksa ).

At the entreaty of his foster mother, Mahāprajāpatī, Buddha founded a second order for nuns. Moreover, he established a third order, this one for lay people, who were obliged only to abstain from killing, stealing, lying, intoxicants, and fornication. But they were exhorted to practice kindness, clean speech, almsgiving, religious instruction, and the duties of mutual family and social relations.

According to traditional sources the primitive doctrine lapsed into heresy, and hence a council was held at Rājagrha, where the authorized version of the sayings of the Master, the Vinaya and the Dhamma, were fixed. A hundred years later a second council took place at Vaiśālī to settle ten questions concerning monastic discipline, but which led to the first major schism in the Buddhist order.

Asoka, apostle of Buddhism. Conscience-stricken at the horrors of a war for the unification of northern India, King Asoka (273231 b.c.) embraced Buddhism. He then abolished the royal hunt and meat at his meals, engraved his precepts on stone, issued a series of edicts embodying Buddhist rules of conduct and justice, spread the Buddhist faith, governed with piety and wisdom, and convened a third council at Pātaliputra in 247. In 240 he became a monk, but without abdicating his royal office. He required his officials to give moral training to their subordinates, to promote piety among people of all sects, and to prevent unjust punishments. He sent his brother (or son) Mahinda and other missionaries to spread the faith in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and another group to Western Asia, Macedonia, and Epirus. Only the mission in Sri Lanka was successful, but Buddhists elsewhere subsequently exerted some influence on the Gnostic and Manichaean sects. Asceticism and missionary movements left an enduring mark in India, whence Buddhism spread throughout Eastern Asia.

Rise of Mahāyāna. Northern Buddhist tradition holds that a fourth council, ignored by Pāli sources, was held at Jālandhara about a.d. 100 and authorized the addition of Sanskrit commentaries to the canon. In the first two centuries of the Christian era Buddhist believers sought a more emotional piety and more personal deities by syncretizing their faith with polytheistic Vedism, monistic Vedantism, and ritual Yoga. They also felt the influence of Zoroastrian, Gnostic, and Hellenic elements brought by Persian, Parthian, Kushan, and Greek invaders. Thus, the ideal of the bodhisattva, the one who sacrifices oneself to save others in a long chain of rebirths, replaced that of Arhat, the one who attains nirvāna by one's own virtue. Gautama was regarded as only one of the earthly manifestations of cosmic Buddha who did and will incarnate himself countless times. Buddhas and bodhisattvas were considered superbeings and deities. Hence, the adherents of the new doctrine called it Mahāyāna, the Great Vehicle to salvation, to distinguish it from the conservative Hīnayāna or Little Vehicle.

In the 2d century a.d. Nāgārjuna founded the School of the Mean (Mādhyamika ) to develop the Great Vehicle and taught that individuals and their constitutive elements (dharma ) were unreal and that existence was but a screen of illusory phenomena whose continuity could be broken only by the knowledge of their basic unreality. Nirvāna consisted in reaching the end of the chain of phenomena. The Yogācāra School, founded by Asaga and Vasubandhu in the 4th century, propounded that all phenomena originate in the mind through eight kinds of awareness that reveal the illusion that there is an objective world and cause all humans to acquire the wisdom whereby they unite with the ultimate. Aśvaghoa developed the system in a form that greatly influenced China and Japan. For him the essence of things consists in the oneness of the totality of things; ignorance of the totality results in the illusory phenomenal world, while recognition of it actualizes the only true reality, which is nirvāa. "Personality" is triple: the absolute in itself (Dharmakāya ), the absolute as embodied in earthly Buddhas (Nirvāakāya ), and the absolute as realized in heavenly Buddhas (Sambhogakāya ). Salvation is attained by faith in the Buddha Amitābha ("having infinite light").

Decline. Buddhism became mixed with the worship of deities (deva ), dragons and snakes (nāga ), and Siva's consort (Devi, Durgā, Kālī, Śakti), who was confused with Tārā, Avalokita's consort. This erotic mysticism was further compounded with Tantrism, a magic ritual of spells, diagrams, sorcery, erotics, and temple prostitution borrowed from China. In the 11th century Buddhism was still strong in Kashmir, Crissa, and Bihar, but with the establishment of the Muslim power in 1193, it disappeared from Northern India, its cradle. In Western India it vanished at about the mid 12th century under the rising tide of Hinduism.

Internal and external causes account for the decay of Buddhism in India. Although Buddha taught salvation through personal effort without dependence on any god, he neither denied the existence of the Hindu gods nor forbade their worship or the rites connected with birth, marriage, and death. Under the influence of Hinduism the Mahāyāna sect evolved a pantheon of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and a metaphysics of a pantheistic world soul complicated by Yoga and Tantra practices. Arising as a variation of Hinduism, this sort of Buddhism was naturally reabsorbed by it, for Hinduism, which had deeper and stronger roots in the Indian soul, in time developed a caste system with impassable social and religious barriers. This was incompatible with classless Buddhism.


When Mahinda, brother (or son) of King Asoka, introduced Buddhism into Sri Lanka about 250 b.c., he met King Devanampiya Tissa at a place since called Mahindatale (now Mihintale), near the capital Anurādhapura. Having been moved by sermons and portents, the king and his subjects embraced the faith. Some days later the minister Avittha and his brothers joined the order; when Mahinda's sister arrived from India, she validly admitted many Sri Lankan women to the order of nuns. In his capital King Tissa then erected shrines and monasteries, notably the Mahāvihāra or Great Monastery, which remained the stronghold of orthodoxy for centuries. In compliance with Mahinda's directives, in order to give the faith a firm foundation, he convened the council of Thuparama so that the sacred books might be committed to memory and in turn taught by native monks.

The invasion of the Tamils from Southern India had arrested the civil and religious progress furthered by the Buddhist kings, Uttiya (207197 b.c.), Mahāsiva (197187 b.c.), and Suratissa (187177 b.c.). The kingdom returned to normal only under Dutthagamani (10177 b.c.), who expelled the invaders, reorganized the island, spread the faith, and built the Lohapaada and Mahāthupa monasteries, where a golden image of Buddha and statues of Māra, Brahmā, and many other Hindu gods were displayed. There ensued a period of Tamil aggression, famine, and uprisings that forced many monks to flee to India and Malaya. When the monks returned to their monasteries under King Vattagamani Abhaya (2917 b.c.), they began to show more interest in learning than in piety. The king built the Abhayagiri monastery for Mahātissa and his monks, who had helped to repulse the Tamil aggression, but the monks of the Mahāvihāra reproved Mahātissa for his familiarity with laymen, and a schism was enkindled in the order.

Canon and commentaries. The monks of the Mahāvihāra feared that Buddha's teachings, thus far committed only to memory, could perish with the monks in wars and the attendant miseries, or be altered through heterodox leanings in some monks. At the rival Abhayagiri monastery, in fact, the rise of a Mahāyāna school presaged heresy and corruption. Accordingly, 500 monks convened on neutral grounds at the Aluvihāra near Matale to write down in Pali the Tipitaka (Three Baskets): Sutta Pitaka (Buddha's sermons), Vinaya Pitaka (monastic rules), and Abhidhamma Piaka (treatises), the whole forming a canon of scriptural texts for the Theravāda School (one of the many schools forming the Hīnayāna) which predominated in Sri Lanka; this corpus is the basis for the present Pāli canon. The writing of the canon away from the capital and from the king bespeaks the disciplinary and doctrinal rift between the two rival monasteries. The appearance of the written canon caused controversies, the compilation of Sinhalese commentaries, and a deeper cleft between the two schools. A dispute between the two groups over the interpretation of the Vinaya, presided over by King Bhatiya (a.d. 3866) and settled by a polyglot minister, gives evidence that the Mahāyāna school at the Abhayagiri was already using Sanskrit versions of the canon embellished with heterodox legends. Under Vohāratissa (a.d. 269291) the schismatics upheld the Vaipulya Piaka as containing the true teaching of the Buddha, but the king thought otherwise and had their books burned. During the reign of Mahānaman (412434) Buddhaghosa wrote the Visuddhimagga (The Way of Purification), a thorough exposition of Hīnayāna Buddhism, and translated most of the Sinhalese commentaries on the canon into Pāli.

The Tamils resumed their incursions and finally drove the native dynasty and its religion from the northern tip of Sri Lanka. But in the 11th century King Vijaya Bahu restored the dynasty and requested the Myanmar Buddhists to validate initiation in Sri Lanka to their order. In 1165 his successor called a council to stamp out schism and heresy, but again after his death the Tamils took the country. Subsequent occupations by the Portuguese (1505) and Dutch (1658) damaged the position of Buddhism, and in the 18th century the order died out. Once again it revived when the king obtained ten Thai monks to validate the succession and establish the Thai school. Finally, before the British displaced the Dutch in 1802, the Amapura school was founded through valid initiation in Myanmar.

Beliefs, order, and cult. Unlike the ethical system of the canon, which has been kept through the centuries, the religious system has become a blend of many ingredients of the rebirth tales of the late Buddhist tradition (jātaka ) and belief in many universes, heavens, and hells on the one hand, with Hindu polytheism and demonism on the other. The Brahmās are the highest Buddhist deities recorded in the canon. Sakka of the Pali commentaries is the same god as the Indra of the Vedic pantheon. The world is protected by the Four Kings (lokapāla ) who rule the six heavens above the human world (mānualoka ). Yama rescues people born in hell, a realm of eight divisions, each subdivided into many sections, whereas Māra, the impersonation of evil, prevents people from doing good. Four evil destinies (apāya ) are realized in the underworld: hells, animals, hungry ghosts (petaloka ), and giant demons (asura ). Above the human world of sense-desire there is the abode of the Brahmās, gods in material body, and the world of no-form, which is the abode of the immaterial Brahmās, is supreme. This hybrid system began to be undermined by Christian influence after 1505 and by public education in the 20th century.

The backbone of the Buddhist faith is the order of monks. Postulants may enter the novitiate at the age of 12 through the ceremony of tonsure and investiture of the yellow robe (pabbajja ). At 20 they make a temporary profession (upasampada ). They spend the day in domestic work, reading the canon, meditating, begging for food, instructing children in the scriptures, healing the sick by charms and chants, and reciting protection sūtras (Paritta ) to ward off the malevolence of the goblins.

The cult includes many forms of popular worship. Objects of veneration are the relics and images of Buddha. Religious celebrations are marked by offerings (pūjā ) to Buddhist and Hindu deities and goblins and by the propitiatory recitation of the canon. Modern educated Sri Lankans associate Buddhism with the greatness of Sri Lanka's past and the national prestige of the present. Their theosophic Buddhism is only one more step away from the original path of Siddhārtha (Buddha).

[a. s. rosso/

c. b. jones]


Buddhism first entered China sometime during the first century a.d., probably with foreign traders who came into China via the Silk Road or from the maritime route along the southeastern seaboard. For the first two centuries or so, it existed primarily among immigrant settlements, while slowly making its presence known among the native Chinese population. As interest grew during the second century, a few monks began translating scriptures tures into Chinese. Notable among these were An Shigao and Lokaksema.

With the fall of the Han dynasty in the early third century, interest in Buddhism among the Chinese increased as the unstable political situation inspired people to seek for new answers. At the same time, the division of China into kingdoms north and south of the Yangtze River gave Buddhism a different character in these two regions. In the north, greater proximity to India meant that Buddhism in this region had a greater number of Indian and Central Asian monks and meditation teachers, and so it tended to emphasize religious practice over textual study. In addition, from the early fourth century to the late sixth, the north was under non-Chinese rule. These "barbarian" rulers favored Buddhism and many monks served as court advisors, giving Buddhism in the north a more overtly political character.

Many of the literati had fled the troubles of the north and migrated to the Southern Kingdoms, bringing with them their emphasis on literary skill. In addition to this, the Northern Kingdoms blocked their access to the living traditions of India and Central Asia, and so the South developed a more literary approach to Buddhist study. During this time, Daoan (312385) produced the first catalogue of Buddhist scriptures, and he and his disciples worked to produce critical editions of scriptures and treatises, and to develop principles for their translation into Chinese. It was during this period that the Central Asian monk Kumārajīva arrived in 402 and opened his translation bureau in the north, producing some of the finest translations from Sanskrit, many of which are still considered the standard. His rendering of Indian Mādhyamika texts led to the foundation of the Sanlun (or "Three Treatise") school that specialized in Mādhyamika philosophy. Also, the dissemination of Buddhist texts and teachings among the educated elite led to a prolonged exchange of ideas between Buddhism and Taoism, and Buddhism absorbed and modified many Taoist ideas.

Other significant figures of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms period include Daosheng (360434) a great textual scholar; Lushan Huiyuan (344416) and Tanluan (476542), who helped establish the Pure Land teachings; the Sanlun master Sengzhao (374414); and the great translator Paramārtha (499569), whose translations of Indian Mind-only literature paved the way for the future establishment of the Faxiang school.

China was reunified by the Sui dynasty in 581 ce, but the ruling house was quickly toppled by the Tang dynasty in 618. The Tang dynasty held power for almost 300 years, and this period represents one of China's golden ages. Buddhism flourished during this period, although it also suffered severe setbacks. Increased affluence and patronage enabled many original thinkers and practitioners to establish schools of Buddhism more in keeping with Chinese cultural and intellectual patterns and less dependent upon pre-existing Indian schools of thought. Examples include Zhiyi (538597), who founded the Tiantai school; Fazang (643712), who consolidated the Huayan school; and the various meditation masters who established Chan as a separate school that transmitted the Buddha-mind directly from master to disciple "outside of words and scriptures." Daochuo (562645), Shandao (613681), and others continued building up the Pure Land movement, extending Tanluan's teaching further. During this time Xuanzang (c. 596664) traveled in India for 16 years and brought back many texts which he translated into Chinese. After Kumārajīva, he is considered the second of the greatest translators in Chinese Buddhist history. He concentrated on Indian Yogacāra thought, and, building on the foundation laid by Paramārtha, founded the Faxiang school.

Prosperity brought its own difficulties. As the numbers of ordained clergy increased, the government became concerned about the revenue and labor pool that would be lost due to the clergy's tax-and labor-exempt status. In addition, ever since Buddhism's inception in China some traditional Confucian scholars had decried it as a foreign religion that violated basic Chinese values, especially the loyalty that all citizens owed to the state and the filial piety that sons and daughters owed their parents. In addition, Taoists sometimes saw in Buddhism an antagonist and competitor rather than a colleague. In the past, the government instituted ordination examinations and state-issued certificates to control the size of the sangha, and twice during the Northern and Southern Kingdoms period the state had suppressed Buddhism (in 446 and 574). In the year 845, the Tang court was incited to suppress Buddhism once again, and for three years it pursued this policy of razing monasteries and temples, forcing clergy back into lay life or even killing them, and burning books, images, and properties. Unlike the previous two persecutions, this suppression happened in a unified China and affected all areas. Scholars are in agreement that this event marked the end of Buddhism's intellectual and cultural dominance, as the sangha never recovered its former glory. The Tiantai and Huayan schools experienced some revivals thereafter, but lost most of their vigor. The Pure Land and Chan schools, being much less dependent upon patronage and scholarship, fared better and became the two dominant schools of Buddhism in China thereafter. After the persecution, Chan communities experimented with new teaching methods that circumvented conventional teaching and inculcated a dramatic, instantaneous experience of enlightenment enment. The leading figures in this movement were Mazu Daoyi (709788), Baizhang Huaihai (749814), Huangbo (d. 850), Linji Yixuan (founder of the Linji school, d.866), Dongshan Liangjie (807869), and Caoshan Benji (840901), the two founders of the Caodong school.

After the Tang, the intellectual vigor of Buddhism was eclipsed by the rise of Neo-Confucianism in the Song dynasty. Nevertheless, there were significant figures and movements during this time. Many figures worked to reconcile the very different outlooks and methods of the Chan and Pure Land schools, notably Yongming Yanshou (904975) and Yunqi Zhuhong (15321612). The latter was also part of a revival of Chan in the latter half of the Ming dynasty that also included Cipo Zhenke (15431603), Hanshan Deqing (15461623), and Ouyi Zhixu (15991655). All agreed that Pure Land and Chan, though differing in method, strove toward the same goal, though Hanshan and Cipo still tended to define this goal in Chan terms. Zhixu, however, emphasized Pure Land teaching almost exclusively and came to be regarded as one of the patriarchs (zu ) of this school.

From the Ming to the Qing dynasty, Buddhism stagnated (although it remained strong in the central eastern seaboard) until the end of the 19th century, when there was a revival of interest in it as a part of the Chinese heritage that could be brought out to counter western culture's claims of superiority. During the early years of the 20th century, figures such as Ouyang JIngwu (18711943) and the monk Taixu (18891947) sponsored new editions of the scriptures and advocated a modernized educational system that would bring Buddhism into alignment with modern currents of thought.

The Communist victory in 1949 cut short the revival of Buddhism, as the new regime tried to undercut all societal support for religion in general. The Cultural Revolution proved a catastrophe for Buddhism during the 1960s and 1970s, as Red Guards destroyed many temples and treasures, and clergy were forced to return to lay status and submit to re-education. However, after the death of Communist leader Mao Zedong in 1976 and the passing of many of his allies, the government has grown more tolerant, and many monasteries are back in operation. Currently, the Chinese Buddhist Association is a thriving organization, and Chinese universities sponsor the academic study of Buddhism. To what extent Buddhism will recover from the setbacks of the Mao era still remains to be seen.

Although formal schools did exist throughout the history of Buddhism in China as listed above, they rarely came into direct conflict with each other, being seen as alternative "gates" set out for practitioners of differing circumstances and temperaments. The most common form of practice is that of Pure Land, wherein Buddhists invoke the name of Amitābha-buddha in order that they might gain rebirth in his Pure Land called Sukhāvatī upon their death. With this as a basis, they might also practice Chan meditation, chanting of scriptures, and other practices in order to build up merit.

In addition, there are popular practices as well. Among these are the fahui, or "dharma-meetings" of various sorts. Some are seasonal, such as those that take place at the spring and autumn festivals, and the Ghost Festival that takes place on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. Other events are sponsored by private patrons, such as the "Ocean and Land Dharma Meeting" (shuilu fahui ), and the "Release of the Burning Mouths" (yuqie yankou ), both long and very complicated ceremonies intended to better the circumstances of the patron's deceased ancestors.


Buddhism first arrived at the imperial court in Japan during the sixth century, when a Korean delegation brought a buddha-image and some scriptures as gifts for the emperor. During the earliest period, the court and aristocratic families understood Buddhism as a variant of their native religion, and used it primarily as a way to cure illnesses and gain supernatural protection for the nation. Prince Shōtoku (572621) is credited with being among the first to see Buddhist teachings as distinct from the native cults and to have understood Buddhism to some degree on its own terms. He is thought to have composed commentaries to several scriptures, and he fostered a program of rapid temple construction.

The Nara Period. During the Nara period, Buddhist activity took place on two fronts: the clergy were trying to understand the newly imported texts, while the government put Buddhist rituals and organizations to work for the welfare of the state. As to the first, the so-called "Six Schools of Nara Buddhism" comprised groups of clergy who concentrated on the texts and thought of six different Chinese schools: (1) the Sanron school focused on Sanlun teachings; (2) the Kegon school took up Huayan studies; (3) the Ritsu school concentrated on monastic precepts and ordinations; (4) the Jōjitsu school studied Satyasiddhi doctrines; (5) the Hossō school dealt with Faxiang teachings; and (6) the Kusha school read the Abhidharmakośa, a "Hinayana" work attributed to the Indian philosopher Vasubandhu. The few scholar-monks who engaged in these studies mostly lived in the capital and were housed in the main temple there, called the Tōji. Outside of this government-sponsored establishment, a few self-ordained practitioners left society and lived in the mountains performing austeries or magical services for ordinary people. In addition to the scholarly activity in the capital, the principle activity of clergy was to perform rituals on behalf of the imperial family and the aristocracy.

The Heian Period. The Heian period saw a movement of Buddhism away from government centers and out among the people, although this movement fell far short of a full-scale popularization of the religion. During this time both Saichō (767822) and Kūkai (774835) journeyed to China to deepen their knowledge of Buddhism. Saichō went to study Tiantai doctrines, but while waiting for a ship to take him home, he encountered a monk who practiced esoteric (or tantric) rituals. After a short period of training and the conferral of the proper initiation, he returned to Japan and settled on Mt. Hiei, where he established the Tendai school to be a successor to the Chinese Tiantai school. However, because the real patronage came from the performance of esoteric rituals, he divided this new school's focus between the exoteric doctrines of Tiantai and esoteric ritual performance. In addition, he asked for and received permission for his school to ordain its own monks independently of the Ritsu school, making use of a set of "bodhisattva precepts" rather than the usual monastic precepts.

Meanwhile, Kūkai went to China exclusively to receive training in esoteric texts and rituals, and the Shingon school that he established on Mt. Kōya upon his return concentrated solely on esoteric Buddhism, and for a time outshone the Tendai school in patronage and popularity.

The relationship between Buddhism and its assembly of buddhas and bodhisattvas and the Shintō pantheon continued to concern many in Japan, and during the Heian period the theory known as honji-suijaku, or "original nature and provisional manifestation," came to dominate. According to this theory, the local kami of Shintō were manifestations of various buddhas and bodhisattvas that appeared in Japan to teach the people and protect the nation. In this way, both religions could be accommodated in a single institution that incorporated both Buddhist and Shintō personnel and practices (the jingūji, or "shrine-temple").

The Kamakura Period. By the opening years of the Kamakura period, however, the Tendai school was the largest and most powerful of the eight schools in existence at that time, and its broad focus on both doctrinal and esoteric study and practice, as well as its laxity, corruption, and militancy (as seen in its infamous "monksoldiers," or sōhei ), made it the front of reform movements and schools. The following figures emerged from Tendai to establish new schools:

  1. Pure Land: Hōnen (11331212) founded the Jōdoshū; Shinran (11731262) the Jōdo Shinshū; and Ippen (12391289) the Jishū.
  2. Zen: Eisai (or Yōsai, 11411215) founded the Rinzai school, which took its lineage of dharma-transmission from the Chinese Linjii school; and Dōgen (12001253) the Sōtō school, derived from the Chinese Caodong lineage.
  3. Nichiren (12221282) founded the Nichiren school, which asserted the primacy of the Lotus Sutra (Myōhō Renge Kyō ) over all other scriptures and recommended the constant repetition and praise of its title as the sole means of salvation.

In addition to the formal establishment of these schools and their institutions, the tradition of asceticism continued under the name shugendō, or "the way of experiential cultivation." Drawn primarily from the ranks of Tendai and Shingon esoteric clergy, practitioners lived in the mountains and practiced by fasting, repentance, esoteric rituals, and long, arduous journeys through the mountains that covered as much as 50 miles in a single day.

Ashikaga and Tokugawa Periods (13921868). By the end of the Kamakura Period, Buddhism was a significant presence at all levels of Japanese society. In the 15th century, Jōdo Shinshū adherents formed popular leagues called ikkō ikki, which rose up in rebellion against local aristocratic rule in Kaga and in 1488 took control of the province themselves. In 1571 the shōgun Oda Nobunaga, distrustful of the enormous landholdings and secular power of Buddhist monasteries, attacked and razed the headquarters of Tendai on Mt. Hiei, dispersing its sōhei once and for all, and he suppressed many other Buddhist establishments. On the other hand, the pervasive presence of Buddhist institutions could be a source of strength for the government. For instance, after the ban on Christianity in 1612 and the subsequent expulsion of Christian missionaries, the government required all citizens to register with local Buddhist temples beginning in 1640, effectively coopting these institutions as a census bureau.

Buddhism's close cooperation with and support by the government in this way led to an inevitable decline, although a few notable figures stand out as exemplars: Takuan (15731645), Bankei Eitaku (162293), and Hakuin (16851768) in the Zen school, and Rennyo (14151499) and Shimaji Mokurai (18381911) of the Pure Land school, to name a few. However, as the Tokugawa period drew to a close in the early 19th century, the real locus of religious vitality was in Confucianism and various intellectual and spiritual renewal movements within Shintō. In addition, the first appearance of the socalled "New Religions" such as Tenrikyō offered real competition for the loyalty of the peasants and the middle classes.

The Meiji and Modern Periods. When the Meiji emperor succeeded in restoring real political and executive power to the imperial family in 1868, one of his first acts was to abrogate the honji-suijaku understanding of the relationship between Buddhism and Shintō, and declared the two put asunder. He declared a persecution of Buddhism during the first decade or so of the Meiji period, but the attack galvanized Buddhists, and they successfully demanded recognition under the new constitution. At the same time, Buddhist chaplains who accompanied Japanese troops in China, Korea, Taiwan, and southeast Asia, as well as missionaries who traveled to America and Europe to participate in the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions and to settle abroad, gave Japanese Buddhism an international presence. While all schools of Japanese Buddhism came to Hawaii and the American mainland with the large numbers of immigrants at that period, Zen had the most success in making an impression on Euro-American culture. The westward expansion of Japanese Buddhism accelerated after World War II.

At the same time, social changes taking place in modern Japan have fostered the development of many Buddhist-derived "New Religions," most of which sprang from offshoots of the Nichiren school and its devotion to the Lotus Sutra. Examples include the Nichiren Shōshū and its now-independent lay branch, the Sōka Gakkai, and Risshō Kōsekai.

Contemporary Japanese Buddhism is a combination of the old and the new: even the most ancient of the Nara schools continues to co-exist alongside the newest of the "New Religions." The Sōtō and Jōdo Shinshū schools are the largest of the traditional schools, and Buddhism remains completely integrated as a vital part of Japanese life and culture.


The form of Buddhism to be described here pervades the entire Tibetan cultural region, an expanse of land that stretches far beyond the borders of the area legally organized as "Tibet" by the government of China, and includes Mongolia (Outer and Inner), Xinjiang Province in China, Nepal, Bhutan, and Kalmuk and Buryat regions of the former Soviet Union.

The indigenous pre-Buddhist religion of this area is conventionally referred to as bön, although this term covers more than one form of religion. In older records, it indicates a kind of priest who did funerals and ancestor rites, especially for the royal houses. In later centuries, the term bönpo came to refer to a distinct religious tradition that, while opposing itself to Buddhism, incorporated many elements of Buddhism into its worldview and practices. The earliest records use the term chö to refer to the practices of the ordinary people, which included shamanistic practices and an animistic worldview, and was aimed at the propitiation of ancestors, deities, and demons that inhabited the natural world.

Inception of Buddhism and the "first dissemination." The origins of Buddhism in Tibet are not entirely clear. Legend has it that a Sanskrit Buddhist scripture descended from the sky into the court of king Tho tho rt gnyan btsan (pron. "Totori Nyentsen," b. c. 173 a.d.), although other sources say it arrived with a delegation from India. Better documentation is available for the importation (or, more accurately, the encompassment) of Buddhism under the great military ruler Srong btsan sgam po (pron. "Songtsen Gampo," c. 618650 a.d.). Under his leadership, the Tibetan empire expanded to many areas where Buddhism was already active, and through two of his political marriages to princesses from Nepal and China, Buddhism came into the court as his wives brought their own chaplains and rites with them. It may be debated whether Srong btsan sgam po himself ever "converted" to Buddhism, but he certainly respected his wives' piety and supported their efforts to build temples.

Srong btsan sgam po also sent emissaries to Kashmir to aid in Tibet's cultural advancement. Some of the scholars he sent remained in this region for many years and devised a written script for Tibet based on the northern Indian Gupta script, and also utilized rules of Sanskrit grammar to regularize Tibetan usage. This laid the groundwork for highly accurate translations of Sanskrit Buddhist texts in the ensuing decades.

The first devout Buddhist king was Khri srong lde btsan (pron. "Trisong Detsen," c. 740798 a.d.). He invited the Indian Buddhist sage Śāntarakita to Tibet, but upon the monk's arrival, a series of natural calamities gave the Bön priests at the imperial court an opportunity to oppose the importation of Buddhism on the grounds that it angered the local spirits and presented a danger to the country. As Śāntarakita left, he advised the king to call the tantric adept Padmasambhava to court, as the latter's skill in tantric ritual could pacify the local deities.

Padmasambhava arrived in Tibet not long afterward and demonstrated his ability to defeat all of the spirits and demons of Tibet massed against him. With the spirits pacified,Śāntarakita was able to return, and the two Indian monks and the king established the first Tibetan monastery in the capital in 775 a.d. in celebration. It was completed in 766 and consecrated in 767 with the initiation of seven Tibetans into the monastic order, an event remembered as the inception of monastic Buddhism in Tibet. After this, the king set about the task of translating Buddhist scriptures into Tibetan. He sent young monks abroad for language study, and also invited monkscholars from India, Kashmir, and China to come and assist with translation efforts.

The presence in the court of monks from these various areas ensured that doctrinal controversies would arise, and so in 792 the king arranged for a debate to be held in Lhasa between proponents of the Indian model of practice that involved a slow and arduous process of removing defilements and errors from the mind over a long period of time, and the Chinese Chan position of "sudden enlightenment" that held that one attains full enlightenment all at once. While most scholars doubt that such a debate ever took place or that the issue was settled all at once, the fact remains that in the long run the Indian view prevailed, and Chinese-style Buddhism lost its foothold.

It is said that the Tibetan translations preserve many texts no longer extant in their original Sanskrit perfectly, not only because Tibetan grammar had already been systematized along Sanskrit lines, but because under the reign of King Ral pa can (pron. "Relbachen," r. 815836), the translation bureaus operating in Tibet set standards and translation equivalences and revised the grammars and scripts to facilitate the accurate representation of Sanskrit expressions and concepts. This constitutes the period of the "old dissemination" of Buddhism, and the texts produced in this period continue to be favored by the Nyingma School.

Ral pa can's lavish support of Buddhism, and his lack of skill in government, angered many, and he was assassinated by two ministers. His successor vigorously persecuted Buddhism, but without much success outside the immediate environs of the capital. He was assassinated in turn, marking the end of Tibet's period of empire.

The "second dissemination." Local rulers maintained an interest in Buddhism, however, an interchanges with Indian monks continued. During this period, King Btsan po 'khor re (pron. "Tsenpo Khore," late 10th century) of the western region of Guge, became a monk and sent many young monks abroad as well as inviting Indian monks to Tibet, thus beginning the period of the "second dissemination." The greatest of the visitors was the Bengalese monk Atiśa (9821054), who arrived in 1042. Atiśa was the foremost Buddhist scholar in India, and a master of both monastic and tantric practices. While in Tibet, his personal authority allowed him to correct deviations from Indian standards, and he also composed the treatise Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, a work important for its ordering of both scholastic doctrine and tantric ritual into a single system. His disciples founded the first real "school" of Tibetan Buddhism, called the bKa' gdams pa (pron. "Kadampa") Order.

The period of Mongol suzerainty (roughly spanning the 13th century) saw the rise of Buddhism's political power as the khans looked to religious leaders such as Sakya Pandita for advice and counsel. With political power and prestige at stake, many monasteries had their own private armies, and the Mongol court often had to intervene at this time to quell violent internal disputes. The Mongol period also saw the compilation of the Tibetan Buddhist Canon.

During the late 1300s and early 1400s, the great scholar Tsong Kha pa (13571419) set about systematizing and reforming Tibetan Buddhism. His efforts gave rise to the d Gelugs pa (pron. "Gelukba"), or "System of Virtue" school. The school's scholarly rigor and strict adherence to monastic discipline soon won it the respect of the masses and the envy of rival schools. In 1578 the d Ge lugs leader b Sod nams rgya mtsho (pron. "Sönam Gyatso," 15431588) visited the Mongol chieftain Altan Khan, who was impressed with him and gave him the title Ta le bla ma, usually romanized as Dalai Lama, meaning "Ocean Guru." Since that time, the Dalai Lama has been the head of the dGe lugs order, and is considered to be an incarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. Because of the political ascendancy of the dGe lugs Order, the Dalai Lama has been the political head of Tibet as well as the head of that monastic order, a fact that causes no small resentment among the lamas of other schools.

The latest great turning point for Tibetan Buddhism came with the Communist takeover of China in 1949, followed by the invasion of Tibet in 1951. At first the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tried to co-opt the current Dalai Lama in order to facilitate control of the territory, but the relationship became impossible to maintain, and the Dalai Lama fled across the border into India in 1959. Since that time, Tibetan Buddhism has existed primarily in diaspora, as monks and nuns in Tibet itself have been imprisoned and tortured and monasteries destroyed. While catastrophic in its effects in Tibet itself, the self-imposed exile of the Dalai Lama and many other Buddhist lamas and leaders has also enabled Tibetan Buddhism to spread to all parts of the world, and is today one of the most widespread forms of Buddhism among European, Australian, and American adherents.

Practices. Tibetan Buddhism since the time of Tsong kha pa has been a systematic mixture of a highly visual meditation system, scholastic philosophy refined in a highly formal practice of debate and study, and tantric ritual. This latter is frequently misunderstood as consisting primarily in sexual yogas, but Tsong kha pa himself defined tantra in terms of "deity yoga."

This means that the student, under the supervision of his guru, associates himself with a given buddha or bodhisattva in a ritual setting, and then practices visualization techniques that enable him to generate an internal iconic image of that buddha or bodhisattva, sometimes in sexual union with a consort. This sexual union symbolizes the conjoining of wisdom and method, meaning that the wisdom that sees the ultimate non-differentiation of all phenomena and beings, is conjoined with the need to act in this world compassionately, which requires differentiation and the assignment of values. For all but the most enlightened, these two ways of relating to the world are incompatible, and the practitioner shuttles between the two, utilizing wisdom while in meditation and method while acting in the world. However, the visualization of the student's associated buddha or bodhisattva in union with his consort uses the dissolution of personal boundaries experienced in sexual union to symbolize the rupture of the boundary between wisdom and method enjoyed by the most highly enlightened beings, so that the two become like "water poured into water," completely coinherent and indistinguishable. While some practitioners will realize this through actual ritualized sexual contact with a partner, in most cases it is done through symbol and visualization alone.

At the same time, the student meditates on the nature of the being so visualized, realizing that there is also no ultimate distinction between himself and that being (since the image is clearly understood as generated within the student's own mind) without collapsing himself and the buddha into a single being (since the buddha or bodhisattva also has an independent existence).

Tibetan Buddhism has also distinguished itself through the arts. There is a highly developed practice of dancing for various occasions, and Tibetan monks are widely renowned for their chanting, which employs vocal techniques that enable them to sing notes that are normally well below the human vocal range. There also exist highly refined techniques in butter sculpture and sand painting, both arts that intentionally employ perishable materials in order to emphasize the impermanence of all achievements. Finally, there are very well articulated conventions of painting and sculpture in more permanent media.


The Three Kingdoms Period (c. 1668). Buddhism was introduced into the Korean peninsula when the local tribes were first consolidating into three large kingdoms (Koguryŏ, Paekche, and Silla), and when Chinese religion, writing, calendrics, and so on were making inroads into Korean culture. Official histories give the date of Buddhism's introduction as 372 a.d., when a Chinese monk arrived in Koguryŏ bringing scriptures and images.

The Unified Silla Period (668918). Silla came to prominence in the sixth century, and Buddhism became the official court religion under King P phung (r. 514539), who used it as part of an ideological campaign to justify the newly established institution of kingship. He strengthened Korean ties with China and sent delegations of young men there to study Buddhism. The Unified Silla period also marked one of the high points of Korean Buddhist art.

During the early Unified Silla period, scholar-monks such as Wŏnhyo (617686), Ŭisang (625702), and Wŏnch'uk (631696) took advantage of the peace and stability to travel to China and work with eminent masters and translators, returning to Korea to share the fruits of their study. Through their efforts, Korean Buddhism absorbed scholastic forms of Buddhist thought such as Huayan (K.: Hwaŏm), Consciousness-only (Ch. Weishi;K. Yusik), and tathāgata-garbha thought, and also took in more popular forms, most notably Pure Land (K: Chŏngt'o). Wŏnhyo in particular contributed to the systematization of scholastic Buddhism into an overarching structure called "t'ong pulgyo" or "unified Buddhism," and disseminated Pure Land practice widely among the masses.

During this period in China, the Chan, or meditation, school was coming to prominence, and its methods and teachings began filtering into Korea during the seventh century. However, it was during the period of instability and upheaval at the end of the Silla period beginning about 780 that the Chan school, known in Korea as Sŏn, came into its own. During this period many students of Hwaŏm and other intellectual schools began traveling to China to study Sŏn while the government established a system of interlinked official temples to foster Sŏn practice.

The Koryŏ Period (9181392). T'aejo, the founder of the Koryŏ dynasty, was a devout Buddhist and even left instructions to his heirs stating that the success of the nation depended upon the vitality of Buddhism. With governmental backing, the monasteries engaged in extensive economic activity, and even retained private armies to protect their interests. Such extensive material resources permitted the publication of the entire Buddhist canon between 1210 and 1231. When the woodblocks from this first printing were destroyed by Mongol invasions in 1232, a new set of blocks was ordered, which were completed between 1236 and 1251. Some 81,000 of these blocks remain stored at the Haein-sa on Mt. Kaya in southern Korea.

Buddhism's political and economic power led to increasing worldliness and corruption. In addition, the schools of doctrinal study and meditation had difficulty defining their unity, and often quarreled very publicly. This situation led monks such as Ŭichŏŏn (d.u.) and Chinul (11581210) to initiate efforts at reform and definition. The former, a prince of the royal court, remained too partial to the doctrinal schools to have much success, but the latter, through both scholarship and meditative attainment, did bring about some degree of unity. He drew upon the Chinese master Zongmi's (780841) pioneering work to effect his synthesis and also spread the method of kōan practice among Sŏn adherents. Later figures such as Taego Pou (13011382) continued his efforts, and strengthened Sŏn. Nevertheless, Buddhism in the latter part of the Koryŏ went into a decline as corruption and decadence worsened, and these set the scene for Buddhism's formal suppression.

The Chosŏn Period (13921910). The fall of Koryŏ in 1392 and its replacement by the heavily pro-Confucian Yi dynasty spelled the end of Korean Buddhism's golden age and the beginning of a period of persecution and declining influence. As time went by, stronger and stronger anti-Buddhist measures went into effect. These included a halt to new temple construction; restrictions on ordinations; the actual closing of monasteries in urban areas and their gradual isolation to remote mountain sites; and a proscription on travel by monks and nuns, which ended in their being forbidden from entering cities altogether. The panoply of doctrinal and meditative schools in existence at the end of the Koryŏ were reduced to only two: doctrinal study and Sŏn, and by the early 20th century, only the latter remained.

The Japanese annexation (19101945). In August 1910, the Japanese government officially annexed Korea. Ironically, this development actually helped bring to an end Buddhism's long suppression. Since the Japanese saw Buddhism as a common element with Korean culture, they demanded the lifting of many of the restrictions imposed on the clergy by the Yi dynasty. Monks and nuns could freely travel and enter cities once again, and new temples could be constructed closer to population centers. However, Japanese favor proved a mixed blessing: the Japanese also exerted pressure on Korean monks and nuns to abandon their distinct ways of life and practice in order to adopt Japanese Buddhist practices, and to give up much of their institutional independence. The most contentious issues concerned clerical marriage and the addition of wine and meat to the diet, trends that had marked Japanese Buddhist life for some time. Some monks (though no nuns) adopted the new style, while others did not, thus setting the stage for the conflicts that ensued during the post-colonial period.

After the war (1945present). With the Japanese withdrawal in 1945, conflict broke out between monks who had taken wives and abandoned many of the normal monastic precepts, and those who had not. These latter insisted upon the full restoration of celibacy and the strict enforcement of traditional rules, and they further insisted that the former group relinquish control of monastic properties. The reformers, consolidated under the now-dominant Chogye Order, eventually won out after several court battles, legislative victories, and open hostilities. Thus, after a painful transition period, married monks left the monasteries, and monastic life returned to earlier standards.

After that, the Chogye Order has overseen the revival and revitalization of Korean Buddhism. Some bitterness broke out in the late 1980s and early 1990s between Buddhists and Christians (the latter group having grown dramatically over the last century), leading to the burning of some temples, but overall, Buddhism has once again taken its place as an integral and harmonious part of Korean society.


The history of Buddhism in the territory now covered by the country of Vietnam dates back at least to the second century a.d. Its territory was under Chinese hegemony through the tenth century, but materials relating the history of Buddhism during the period of Chinese dominance are scarce. Stories dating from this period show the presence of monastic Buddhism, and present tales of scripture-chanting, the erection of images, and the miraculous intervention of monks, and early records also indicate that the late Han-dynasty governor of Jiaozhou, Shi Xie (Si Nhiep) had a large number of Chinese and Central Asian monks in his entourage. Official Chinese court records speak of eminent and accomplished monks from Jiaozhou who made their way to the northern capitals, showing that there were sufficient resources there for them to receive detailed training in doctrine, scripture, and meditation, and there are also records of foreign monks who settled in Jiaozhou to carry out translation activities. The monk Yijing (635713), a traveler and historian, mentions that several of them, having taken the southern maritime route to and from India, stopped off in Jiaozhou.

In many respects, Buddhism in Vietnam during this period was simply an extension of Chinese Buddhism. However, there was another strain of Buddhism active in the area at this time. Waves of Indian cultural exports had made their way across southeast Asia, penetrating as far as Indonesia, and Theravāda forms of Buddhism were among these. Many people in the southern part of Vietnam were more influenced by this form of Buddhism than by Chinese Mahāyāna Buddhism, and so Vietnam came to be the meeting place for the two streams: Mahāyāna going north from India along the Silk Road, down into China, then into Vietnam, and Theravāda going south along the seacoasts through Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, and into Vietnam. Vietnamese Buddhism, as a result, is a unique mixture of Mahāyāna and Theravāda forms.

By the time Vietnam achieved independence from China in the tenth century, Buddhism had been an integral part of the cultural landscape for over 800 years. The first emperor of independent Vietnam, Dinh Bo Linh, put together a system of hierarchical ranks for government officials, Buddhist monks, and Daoist priests after ascending to power in 968 A.D. Thereafter, Buddhist monks were part of the national administration, serving the ruler as advisors, rallying the people in times of crisis, and attending to the spiritual needs of the masses.

It was the L Dynasty (10101225) that willingly coopted diverse elements in its task of constructing a national culture and identity. In this climate, many schools of Buddhism were able to exist side by side and compete in an open religious marketplace, further facilitating the intermingling of Mahāyāna and Theravāda forms. Archaeological evidence also indicates that tantric Buddhism had also made its way into Vietnam during this time (stelae with mantras inscribed on them have been discovered). During this time, Buddhism also became more widely disseminated among the common people, as monks came into villages and "converted" local deities, ancestors, and culture heroes to the religion and declared them now "protectors" of the dharma. This move worked to unify the disparate local cults under the Buddhist umbrella, and aided in the unification of the country.

In return, the Lý kings supported Buddhism lavishly: giving stipends to eminent monks, erecting and refurbishing temples, and sending envoys to eight China in search of scriptures. In this way, new developments in Chinese Buddhism were noted in Vietnam, particularly with the importation of Chan works. This created a dichotomy between an older form of Buddhism that was highly syncretistic and incorporated many elements and practices under its umbrella, and a newer Buddhism that inclined to a purer Chinese nature, centered mostly on Chan.

Chan study and practice became more entrenched under the Tran dynasty (12251400), although the older forms also remained vital. Tran rulers sponsored the establishment of the first actual "schools" of Buddhism in Vietnam, beginning with the Truc Lam (Bamboo Grove) Chan School founded by the third Tran king. Missionary monks also arrived continuously from China, bringing both the Lin-chi and Tsao-tung Schools into Vietnam, and they found a ready audience among the Tran aristocracy.

In the 15th century, the Vietnamese began to conquer and absorb parts of Cambodia, strengthening the interchange between the Vietnamese Chan of the elites and the Theravāda teachings and practices of the Cambodians. The country took its current shape during the 18th century, and the country's unique blend of schools of Buddhism was fixed from that time. The French occupation of Indochina, which gave the different ethnic groupings of the land a common tongue, facilitated further interchange between different forms of Buddhism.

During the early 20th century, many educated Vietnamese began abandoning Mahāyāna Buddhism, which seemed superstitious, in favor of Theravāda Buddhism, which seemed more pragmatic and this-worldly. An instrumental figure in this evolution was Le Van Giang, who studied Theravāda meditation with a Cambodian teacher, took the name Ho-Tong, and came back to Vietnam to build the first formally Theravāda temple near Saigon. From this headquarters he began actively disseminating Theravāda Buddhism in the local language, and produced translations of the Pāli scriptures into Vietnamese. The Vietnamese Theravāda Buddhist Sangha Congregation was formally established in 1957, making what had formerly been an element dispersed throughout Vietnamese Buddhism in a diffuse manner into a formal school to rival the Chinese-style Chan schools.

During the Vietnam War, Buddhist monks were active in efforts to bring hostilities to a close, and many of them immolated themselves publicly to protest the war. Others went abroad to propagate Vietnamese Chan, notably Thich Nhat Hanh.

[c. b. jones]


By ancient tradition, Theravāda Buddhism was introduced into Myanmar by two of Asoka's missionaries from India. Centuries later heretical Indian teachers came via Nepal and Tibet to spread a mixture of Mahāyāna and Tantra. King Anawrahta (a.d. 104477), who unified Myanmar, adopted Hīnayāna as the state religion, curbed the heretic sect, inaugurated the era of temple building, and appointed his religious adviser as superior general of the order. Although disorganized by the Mongol occupation of 1287 and subsequent Shan raids, the order was revived by Dammazedi (147292), who sent monks to Sri Lanka to secure valid admission. In 1871 King Mindon Min convened the fifth Buddhist council in Mandalay, but with the British annexation of Upper Myanmar in 1885, Buddhism ceased to be the state religion.

Belief. The Burmese and the Shan Buddhists believe in the "Four Noble Truths," the requital of actions, the acquisition and sharing of merits, rebirth and nirvāna, the canon, impermanence, and impersonality. They combine the pre-existing animistic belief system and cult of the ancestors for assistance with worldly concerns and the Buddhist belief that all gods and spirits are of no help on the journey to liberation. They propitiate the spirits of their ancestors and hostile goblins and heed good and ill omens. The Burmese, instead of adopting pure Buddhism as a philosophy of life and as an outlet for some form of social activity, take refuge in the warmer and more personal contact with the spirits to satisfy their deeper religious sense of dependence, need, and survival.

Order and cult. Burmese monarchism is organized according to that of Sri Lanka. Any male of over seven years of age may join the order as a novice (koyin ). After initiation (upazin ) a monk must observe the 227 monastic rules. Every morning young monks and novices go out to beg for their daily food. The monks perform certain daily exercises, assemble fortnightly for their confession chapter (uposatha ), and in the lenten season (wa ) make their annual retreat.

Buddhism in Myanmar has neither a formal head nor a centralized organization. Every village has a monastery (kyaung ) with a monk (pongyi ) in charge and a nearby pagoda. Worship at the shrines is reverential and apart from a few community exercises it is individual. Intellectual monks pray to nobody and for nothing. Devotions and private petitions to the Buddha are popular among the masses. Many pray hoping for a blessing in return, and others repeat Buddha's words with a pure heart as an infallible means of acquiring merit. The worship of images, relics, and spirits is popular. The New Year Feast (Thingyan ) celebrates the annual visit of the king of the spirits, Thagyamin. The beginning of the lenten season is marked by devotions, floats of nats (spirits), and a show of Buddha's birth-stories (zat ). The end of the season commemorates Buddha's return from the Tawadeintha heaven.

Despite the lack of a central leadership and organization, most Myanmar are devout Buddhists deeply attached to the order.


Theravāda Buddhism was introduced probably by Asoka's missionaries some time after 245 b.c. and super-imposed on the native animism. In the first centuries a.d. the country was Hinduized and it later fell under the influence of Tantric Mahāyāna. Since 1057, however, a modified Hīnayāna has prevailed over Mahāyāna, at least among the educated. The stele of King Rama Kamheng of 1292 records two Hīnayāna schools. About 1360 Rama Thibodi, founder of the Ayuthia monarchy, believing that it was necessary to get a validation of monastic initiation, sent an abbot to Sri Lanka to enter the order and thus secure the valid succession. King Boromoraja II captured Angkor, the Cambodian capital, and brought back its statesmen and brahmans (1431). Twenty-nine years later his successor used these Cambodian leaders to reorganize the national administration and ceremonial and to establish himself as the divine Buddhist king (Buddha rājā ), after Cambodia's divine Hindu kings (Devarājā ). Buddhism remained the state religion, but it exhibited the marked influence of Hinduism and animism. After the fall of the Thai kingdom in 1767, its restorer, Rama I (17821809), upheld the national religion, showed devotion to the order, displayed zeal in temple building, promoted the revision of the canon, and published the legal corpus, Phra Dharmaśāstra. In its first volume appeared the Indian Code of the patriarch and seer Manu, dealing with the creation of the world, the state of the soul after death, and the customary law concerning religion, caste, and society. Rama IV (185168) strove to rid Hīnayāna of animistic, Mahayanistic, and Brahmanic accretions and reorganized the order. Rama VII (192535) established an ecclesiastical board within the ministry of education, and was made "Upholder of the Faith" by the constitution of 1932, a title reaffirmed by subsequent constitutional drafts.

Order and cult. Although Thai monarchism had derived inspiration, instruction, and valid succession from the order of Sri Lanka, the order had not been centralized because of the Hinduization of the country and the political absolutism dating back to 1460. However, Rama IV, initiated into Western scholarship by Catholic and Protestant missionaries, introduced a hierarchical structure into the order, patterning it after Catholic monarchism. Accordingly, authority was vested in a patriarch assisted by 15 councilors, forming together the supreme chapter. Four leaders were provided for the Mahānikaya school and four for the Dharmayuthika school, and under each there were four subdivision leaders. For each of the ten circles there was an administrator, and provincials served the 70 provinces. Superiors were constituted for the 407 districts, abbots for the precincts, and priors for the temples and monks.

Boys of 12 or more could enter the monastery as pupils. Novices were admitted at any age and for any length of time, but could not become monks before 20. Monks were exempt from military service. They received jurisdiction to initiate others, as well as titles of their own from the ecclesiastical board. Most of the temples had a monastery, and both were generously endowed by the faithful and the government. The initiation rite showed a combination of Mahāyāna, Hīnayāna, and animistic elements. Upon initiation each monk received a credential booklet marked with his name; in this he was to keep his own vital statistics, right thumbprint, his picture, the name of his parents, initiator, and teachers, and the records of his transfers, examinations, positions, legal charges, and laicization.

Public worship was conducted by the monks. They were to reserve the morning service to themselves, except on the four uposatha days set for the laity. In formal services a leader addressed an invocation to the devatas (minor deities) and nāgas (serpents) borrowed from Hinduism. The rainy season retreat (vassa ) was marked with rites and pageantry of Buddhist and Hindu flavor. Some of the life-cycle rites (birthday, tonsure, wedding, and funeral) contained Brahmanic features but were conducted by Buddhist monks with charms, amulets, invocations for good fortune, and the sprinkling of magic water. Despite the orthodox doctrine of impermanence and impersonality, most people believed that their good deeds and Buddha's grace could be applied for the repose of the souls departed. Rites celebrating national holidays were conducted by Brahmans and Buddhists in a mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Buddhist action. Thai Buddhism, which is well organized and state supported, has at its disposal the school, the press, and the state broadcasting system. It freely borrows methods of action from other religions, especially Catholicism. In 1928 the king sanctioned the Buddhamāmaka oath, an adaptation of Catholic confirmation, to be taken by students going abroad. The ritual, although inspired by Catholicism, is a mixture of Buddhism and Hinduism. In 1929 Buddhist religious instruction was introduced into all state schools. The Young Buddhists Association (1933), the Buddha Dharma Association (1934), and similar societies promote Buddhist action among the laity. Buddhism is rooted in Thai history, culture, and psychology and remains the soul of the nation.


After centuries of rivalry with Hinduism, the religion of the Buddha became established in Cambodia. By the 1st century a.d. the inhabitants, known as the Khmers, had been Hinduized under rulers of Indian and Indonesian descent. But Hīnayāna, the conservative Buddhism of Myanmar, was accepted by the Khmers in the 3rd century and flourished along with sects worshipping the Hindu deities Siva and Vishnu. Moreover, according to an inscription of 791 recording the erection of an image of the Buddhist Lokeśvara (Avalok iteśvara ), Mahāyāna had been introduced into Cambodia, probably tinged with Vajrayāna Tantric mysticism and the influences of various Hindu cults. Jayavarman II (802854), the founder of a kingship at Angkor, called his realm Kambudja, established the cult of the divine king (Devarājā ), deriving his authority from Siva, and, at the expense of Buddhism, upheld a form of Hinduism based on the Purāas, or treatises on cosmogony.

Spread of Buddhism. Hinduism continued to be strong when Indravarman (877889) began the construction of a magnificent capital at Angkor, Siva's linga, a phallic symbol in stone of his divine authority. His son and successor Yasovarman I (889900) built temples for the various sects of Siva, Vishnu, Brahmanic Yoga, and Mahāyāna. This religious eclecticism gradually disappeared when Jayavarman VII (1181c. 1200), a devout Mahayanist, turned the Devarājā cult into that of the Buddharājā, the divine Buddhist ruler. In Sri Lanka his son studied Hīnayāna, which he introduced into Cambodia. Because of its popular appeal and the monastic school system, Hīnayāna eventually became the predominant religion. After 1350 the religious life was so disrupted by Thai invasions that in 1423 Cambodian monks repaired to Sri Lanka to be reinvested, to ensure valid succession and reorganization of the order in accord with orthodox Buddhism. When in 1460 Cambodia lost its independence to Thailand, Hīnayāna, largely because of Thai influence, remained the dominant religion.

Belief, order, cult. Cambodian Buddhism is a fusion of the predominant Hīnayāna with pristine ancestor and ghost worship, Brahmanism, and Mahāyāna. Its Hindu cosmogony, detailed in the sacred books Trey-Phet and Kampi Preas Thomma Chhean, comprises Prohm (Brahmā ), the eternal, uncreated, and uncreating absolute; the universe of countless triads of worlds (chakralaveal ) and stars that are worshipped as deities; three categories of paradises; and great and small purgatories where the departed atone for their faults and are reborn on earth or in paradise. The pantheon contains four major Buddhas, including Gautama; Mettrey (Maitreya ), the Buddha that will come at the end of time; countless Brahmanic deities; and all the heavenly beings. The universe is full of ghosts and fantastic animals that are invoked and propitiated by the Cambodians in time of need or fear. Although the core of Cambodian Buddhism is Hīnayāna, the monks tend toward a godless monism, and the people, while longing for a transcendent theism, syncretize all religions that have crossed the land.

The order is territorially divided into two regions and subdivided into provinces, each with from ten to 20 monasteries and temples, under the jurisdiction of a superior general. The monastic rules, exercises, and privileges are the same as those found in the Thai order. The monastery, where most Cambodian males spend some time in study and meditation, forms the center of religious and social activities. Each village has its temple. The cult includes court ceremonies, holiday rites, private devotions, propitiations, exorcisms, and conjurations against sickness and evil.

[a. s. rosso/

c. b. jones]


Buddhism arrived in Europe and America in two different ways. First, there have been communities of immigrants into the United States, Australia, and the countries of Europe who have brought Buddhism with them and established communities aimed at their needs. Second, there have been westerners who have converted to Buddhism.

Immigrant groups. Chinese immigrants began coming to the west coast of the United States during the gold rush of 1848, and later to assist in building the transcontinental railroads. The companies in China that arranged for their transportation and employment also took responsibility for building temples in areas of high Chinese concentration. These temples were typically Chinese temples that encompassed the range of the "three teachings" of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, and the few monks who came from China generally performed more rituals for clients than study or meditation. By the end of the 19th century many buildings in San Francisco and New York as well as other cities had a Chinese temple on the top floor.

Japan had been officially closed to all foreign contact since the beginning of the 17th century, but after the forced opening of Japan by Commodore Perry in 1854, the government began allowing Japanese to travel abroad. Many went to Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations, and a Jōdo Shinshū priest arrived in 1889 to serve their needs and provide funeral services. Japanese living on the mainland at this time tended to leave Buddhism behind in an effort to adapt, but later the Jōdo Shinshū established congregations grouped under the Buddhist Churches of America, which continues to cater principally to Japanese immigrant needs. Many Japanese workers also came to South America, and the first Buddhist temple for Japanese immigrants was established in So Paulo, Brazil, in 1932.

Other groups have also established Buddhist temples and monasteries for the benefit of their people living abroad in the west, such as the Thai monastery in Bolivia, North Carolina and Vietnamese temples in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.

Western convert groups. By and large, the majority of native westerners who convert to Buddhism have embraced one of three traditions: Tibetan (mainly d Ge lugs), Japanese Zen (and increasingly Nichiren), and Sri Lankan Theravāda. Western awareness of and interest in Buddhism dates back two centuries, to the colonization of India and the activities of Sanskrit scholars who began making and disseminating translations of classic texts. The ideas sparked interest among western intellectuals, such as Emerson, Thoreau, and other New England transcendentalists, and European romanticists such as Friedrich Schlegel, who were influenced by Sir Edwin Arnold's epic poem on the life of the Buddha, The Light of Asia, published in 1879, and the Theosophist Henry Steele Olcott's A Buddhist Catechism, published in 1881. Arnold himself cooperated with Anagarika Dharmapala (18641933) to found the Maha Bodhi Society in England and India in 1891 with the intent of reviving Buddhism in India.

A real turning point was reached when the World Parliament of Religions opened in Chicago in 1893, bringing several significant Asian Buddhist figures to America, such as Soyen Shaku and Dharmapāla. Several of them remained in America after the close of the Parliament and continued missionary activities in many major cities. Dharmapāla opened the American chapter of the Maha Bodhi Society in 1897.

Early in the 20th century, a handful of westerners became sufficiently enthusiastic about Buddhism to travel abroad to seek monastic ordination, while others remained at home and founded Buddhist societies, such as the British Buddhist Society, founded in 1924 as a lodge within the Theosophical Movement, from which it broke free within two years. In the U.S., Japanese Zen missionaries began arriving and working among non-Asian American populations, but met with little success until the 1950s, when D.T. Suzuki (18701966) began reaching a wide audience through his writings and talks. In Europe, the largest convert groups were to be found in England and Germany, while very small groups existed in France, Switzerland, and elsewhere.

The end of World War II marked a watershed in the dissemination of Asian Buddhism among non-Asian groups. More Asian missionaries came to the west, and westerners themselves began gaining credentials as teachers and masters within Asian traditions. At this time, Buddhism began making its first inroads into Australia as well. The swelling number of missionaries and teachers meant a growing plurality of styles of Buddhism, and more converts adopted it as a holistic religious commitment rather than as an intellectual alternative. Since the 1970s, the number of Buddhist centers and groups in western countries has risen dramatically, although it should be noted that, by approximately 1990, only in the U.S. and Australia did the number of Buddhists exceed one percent of the population among western nations listed by Baumann (2000:2223).

Western Buddhist movements. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the dichotomy between immigrant and western convert groups became blurred. As the children of immigrants become increasingly westernized, and as children of converts are raised as Buddhists, the outlook of the groups tends to converge, leading to forms of Buddhism that are neither simple transplants of Asian traditions nor western appropriations of such.

Generally, Buddhist groups in the west tend to consist of educated, middle to upper class populations. Their generally modernist outlook leads them to abandon aspects of traditional Asian Buddhism that strike them as "superstitious," such as rites for the dead, veneration of relics, practices intended to create merit, and the transference of this merit to improve the status of deceased family members, and even the ideas of karma and rebirth in some circles. They also have abandoned aspects of Buddhist practice that connected it with traditional communities: the alms begging round, monastic ordinations that functioned as coming-of-age rites, etc.

Buddhism has also been adapted by these groups (as well as by many that remain in Asia) for the conditions of modernity. Emphasis is more on lay practice than on the need for monastic vows, leading to the establishment of "meditation centers" rather than monasteries. Much attention has been given to the role of women and the bureaucratization of leadership. Even the tradition of meditation, practiced only by a minority of specialists in traditional Buddhism, has come to the fore as Buddhism serves more psychological and therapeutic needs. As a result, Buddhism in the west, and around the world, is becoming less devotional and pietistic, and more intellectual, rational, and therapeutic.

Globalization. One of the effects of the modern period with its legacy of colonialism and current ease of travel and contact is an unprecedented globalization of Buddhism. The organization of this article itself suggests that Buddhism grew in discrete geographical areas within self-contained cultures, and so indeed it has throughout most of its history. However, the modern period has seen Tibetan Buddhists interacting with Chinese Buddhists, Sri Lankan Buddhist monks traveling to Taiwan to study Chinese in order to read and translate Chinese Buddhist classics, and Japanese Buddhists living side-by-side with western Buddhists who take elements from all previous forms and add some of their own. The result has been the weakening of boundaries and the increase in mutual influence, thus creating a global Buddhism that no longer is defined by boundaries, but by openness.

Aside from the more informal cross-fertilization that modern circumstances helped to foster, this situation has also led to the establishment of Buddhist Organizations with transnational constituencies and aims. The most prominent of these is the World Fellowship of Buddhists, founded in Sri Lanka in 1950. In addition to this umbrella organization, individual Buddhist organizations, once purely local in their operations, have established branch offices and centers in other localities and other countries. Examples include Fo Kuang Shan (Taiwan), the Diamond Sangha (U.S.), and the Insight Meditation Society (Sri Lanka/U.S.).

Bibliography: m. baumann, "Global Buddhism: Developmental Periods, Regional Histories, and a New Analytical Perspective," Journal of Global Buddhism, 2 (2000) 143; k. ch'en, Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey (Princeton 1964); r. fields, How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America (3d ed. Boston 1992); r. gombrich, Theravada Buddhism: A Social History (London 1988); p. harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism (Cambridge, England 1990); a. hirakawa, A History of Indian Buddhism (Honolulu 1990); d. lopez, ed., Buddhism in Practice (Princeton 1995); a. matsunaga and d. matsunaga, Foundation of Japanese Buddhism (2 vols.; Buddhist Books International, 1976); k. mizuno, Buddhist Sutras: Origin, Development, Transmission (Kosei Pub., 1982); j. powers, Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism (Snow Lion, 1995); k. sonoda, Shapers of Japanese Buddhism (Kosei Pub., 1994); j. strong, The Experience of Buddhism: Sources and Interpretations (Wadsworth, 1995); d. swearer, The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia (SUNY, 1995); m. wijayaratna, Buddhist Monastic Life (trans. Grangier and Collins; Cambridge, 1990); p. williams, Mahāyāna Buddhism: the Doctrinal Foundations (London 1989).

[c. b. jones]


views updated May 14 2018


FOUNDED: Fifth century b.c.e.


Buddhism is the world's oldest missionary religion. Since its beginnings some 2,500 years ago in northern India, it has spread to nearly every region of the world. There are now more than 350 million Buddhists in the world, most of whom belong to one or the other of the two major schools: the Mahayana and the Theravada. About 98 percent of the world's Buddhists can be found in Asia, but there are significant Buddhist communities throughout Europe, North America, and Australia. There are Buddhists who are poor rice farmers in Malaysia and who are wealthy business owners in Chicago.

As it has spread, Buddhism has by necessity also changed, expanding to adapt to many different cultural, linguistic, and geographical settings, incorporating local beliefs and practices, and shifting to accommodate often fluid social and political contexts. The Buddhist tradition thus displays an incredible variety of beliefs and practices. There is no central Buddhist organization, single authoritative text, or simple set of defining practices. Buddhism is, to its core, a pluralistic religion.

Despite its incredible diversity, though, there are elements that cut across the many contexts in which Buddhism and Buddhists flourish. These elements include beliefs and traditions that, although perhaps slightly different depending on their specific settings, could be recognized and practiced by all Buddhists. For instance, all Buddhists recite the simple formula known as the Three Refuges (also known as the Triple Gem): "I go for refuge to the Buddha, I go for refuge to the dharma, I go for refuge to the sangha." Buddhists can be heard chanting these lines in Colombo, Bangkok, Beijing, Sidney, Rome, or Los Angeles. Certain core philosophical tenets and beliefs that cut across the Buddhist world include karma, nirvana, and renunciation. While attention must be paid to the diverse contexts, beliefs, and practices of Buddhism, the Buddhist tradition as a whole can also be fruitfully examined.

Perhaps the single most significant unifying factor for the world's diverse Buddhist populations is the figure of the Buddha himself, Siddhartha Gautama. Although the various schools of Buddhism have different specific understandings of and attitudes toward the Buddha, each of them, without exception, recognizes, respects, and reveres him. What makes the Buddha so significant in Buddhism is not simply that he is the founder of the religion but also that he serves as the template for every Buddhist, the model for the life of the individual. It is not enough to receive and understand his teachings or to worship him; rather, one must strive to be like the Buddha—to replicate his life.


The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, who would later be known simply as the Buddha, was by birth what we would now call a Hindu. Although Buddhism breaks with the Hindu tradition in significant ways, it was at the start very much a reform movement from within Hinduism. It is thus essential to understand something of the religious worldview of India in the sixth century b.c.e. in order to understand the Buddha's own religious worldview and why Buddhism took the particular shape that it did.

The Buddha was born into a world in flux, of shifting religious ideals and changing social structures. The dominant religion in northern India up until this point was Brahmanism, based on a body of texts called the Vedas, which had developed orally beginning about 1500 b.c.e. This religious system was also beginning to be challenged from a number of fronts.

The Vedic religious world was one of numerous deities, or devas, many of whom were personified forces of nature. Humans could interact with and influence these devas via sacrifice; offerings such as grain, milk, and animals were placed in a sacrificial fire by a priest, or Brahman, and "consumed" by the gods. In return, according to the Vedas, humans would receive boons from the gods: abundant crops, healthy sons, protection, and so on.

This was, furthermore, a hierarchical religious world, formally defined by the division of society into four classes, or varnas, membership in which was determined solely by birth. At the top were the sacrificial priests, the Brahmans. It was their role and duty to perform the religious rituals and to preserve and recite the Vedas—to memorize the thousands of verses, to chant them at the sacrificial rituals, and to orally pass these texts on to successive generations of Brahmans. In so doing, the Brahmans maintained the order, or dharma (Pali, dhamma), of the world, assuring that the gods would be appeased. Directly below the Brahmans in the hierarchy were the Kshatriyas, the warriors and sociopolitical rulers. Just as it was the duty of the Brahmans to maintain the order of the divine world, so was it the dharma of the Kshatriyas to preserve order in the human realm. Below the Kshatriyas were the Vaishyas, the cultivators and keepers of domestic animals. It was their dharma, accordingly, to provide food and material goods. Below them were the Shudras, the laborers and servants, whose dharma it was to ensure the cleanliness of the other three classes of humans. Outside this system was a group called untouchables, or outcasts, who had no defined role in the social system and who were viewed as disorderly, as adharmic in character and nature.

This was a system of mutual dependence but also of restriction. There was no upward mobility in this system. One Vedic text (the "Purusha Shukta" of the Rig Veda) that describes the creation of the universe envisions this social system as a human being who is sacrificed to create the world: the Brahmans are the mouth of the human (because of their oral preservation and performance of the sacred verses of the Veda); the Kshatriyas are the arms (because they are the "strong arms" of the social world); the Vaishyas are the thighs (the support of the body); and, significantly, the Shudras are the feet (the lowest but in many ways the most fundamental). Thus, social and cosmic order (dharma) can be maintained only if each part of the body is present and "healthy." Certainly the feet are lower than the head, but without the feet the body cannot stand.

A new genre of religious discourse, a body of texts known as the Upanishads, began to emerge out of the Vedic ritual religious world sometime between the seventh and the fifth century b.c.e. Although they would eventually become part of Hinduism, these texts—orally transmitted, like the Vedas—began to question the efficacy of the formal sacrifice and introduced essential new religious ideas that would be adopted, in part, by the Buddha: the idea of rebirth (samsara), the law of cause and effect (karma), the concept of liberation (moksha) from samsara, and the practice of asceticism and meditation (yoga).


The Wheel of the Dharma symbolizes aspects of the Buddha's teachings. It represents the preaching ("turning") of his first sermon and also, with its eight spokes, Buddhism's Eightfold Path. The path is a guide to living life compassionately and nonviolently.

As the ideas of the Upanishads began to spread, some individuals took them to heart and set out to experience the liberation that they described. These individuals renounced their ties to the material world and set out as wanderers, spreading these new ideas even farther and debating philosophical and meditational points. These various wanderers were called shramanas, and the earliest Buddhists saw themselves as a subset of this group of itinerant religious seekers. Also among these individuals was Mahavira, the founder of another new religious tradition, Jainism.

At about the same time, important social changes were in process along the Gangetic Plain in northern India. Kingdoms began to emerge out of the smaller kinship structures, and with these kingdoms came cities and highly structured systems of government. Furthermore, trade routes began to develop between these cities, and with trade came both economic growth and the emergence of a monied merchant class. This latter group is particularly important in the emergence of Buddhism, for although they had economic status, they, as members of the Vaishya caste, did not have religious status; the Buddha would offer a new religious path that allowed them to develop that status.

Buddhist tradition holds that the man who would become the Buddha was born in a small village near what is now the border between Nepal and India in the middle of the sixth century b.c.e. He was born into a Kshatriya family, part of the Shakka clan, and was given the name Siddhartha (he whose goal will be accomplished) Gautama.

According to legend, his birth was asexual. In a dream that his mother had, the fetus was implanted in her womb by a white elephant. His father, upon learning of his wife's unusual impregnation, had the dream interpreted by a group of Brahman priests, who stated that the boy was destined to greatness, either as a great king (cakravartin) or a religious leader. From the start it was clear that he would be an extraordinary human being. Siddhartha emerged from the womb—some versions have him diving out of his mother's side—and immediately took seven steps in each of the four directions, proclaiming that he was the foremost creature in each of them.

Because of the prediction of the priests, Siddhartha's father kept him confined to the palace grounds, making sure that the young boy could see and experience only sweetness and light. In an early sermon, the Buddha describes his childhood this way: "Bhikkhus [monks], I was delicately nurtured, exceedingly delicately nurtured, delicately nurtured beyond measure. In my father's residence lotus-ponds were made: one of blue lotuses, one of red and another of white lotuses, just for my sake.… My turban was made of Kashi cloth [silk from modern Varanasi], as was my jacket, my tunic, and my cloak.… I had three palaces: one for winter, one for summer and one for the rainy season.… In the rainy season palace, during the four months of the rains, I was entertained only by female musicians, and I did not come down from the palace" (from the Anguttara Nikaya). Within the confines of the palace, Siddhartha lived, essentially, a normal Brahmanical life, passing from the student stage to the beginnings of the householder stage, but all the while being groomed to eventually become king. He married and had a child, a son named Rahula.

One day Siddhartha persuaded his chariot driver to take him outside the gates of the palace, and there he saw the first of four things that would transform his life. Upon seeing an old man, Siddhartha asked his driver, "Good charioteer, who is this man with white hair, supporting himself on the staff in his hand, with his eyes veiled by the brows, and limbs relaxed and bent? Is this some transformation in him, or his original state, or mere chance?" The driver answered that it was old age, and the prince asked, "Will this evil come upon me also?" The answer was, of course, "Yes."

On two subsequent trips outside the palace grounds, Siddhartha saw a diseased man and then a dead man, and on each occasion he had much the same discussion with the driver. These first encounters with suffering (duhkha; Pali, dukkha) transformed the happy prince into a brooding young man. As one text puts it, "He was perturbed in his lofty soul at hearing of old age, like a bull on hearing the crash of a thunderbolt nearby." Siddhartha wondered if perhaps this luxurious palace life was not reality but instead was an illusion of some sort, and he thenceforth wandered around in a profound existential crisis.

The fourth thing he saw was a wandering ascetic, and having encountered not only the duhkha that characterizes the world but also, in the ascetic, a potential way out of this realm of suffering, Siddhartha resolved to leave the palace and go out into the world and wander in search of the truth. He sneaked out in the middle of the night after first going to his sleeping father to explain that he was not leaving out of lack of respect nor out of selfishness but because he had a profound desire to liberate the world from old age and death, from the fear of suffering that comes with old age and death. In short, Siddhartha wanted to rid the world of suffering.

He went off and quickly mastered meditation with a variety of teachers, but he was frustrated and thought that there must be something more than what he experienced as only temporary meditational trances. He thus set out on his own and was soon joined by five other shramanas. Together they began a course of rigorous asceticism. Siddhartha applied himself with great rigor to this radical lifestyle for several years, getting to the point that he could sit in meditation for days, barely eating. The narratives of his life story say that at this point he could exist on a daily diet consisting of one sesame seed, one grain of rice, or one jujube. Eventually he reached a state in which he was barely breathing, barely alive: "Because of so little nourishment, all my limbs became like some withered creepers with knotted joints; my buttocks like a buffalo's hoof; my back-bone protruding like a string of balls; my ribs like rafters of a dilapidated shed; the pupils of my eyes appeared sunk deep in their sockets as water appears shining at the bottom of a deep well; my scalp became shriveled and shrunk as a bitter gourd cut unripe becomes shriveled and shrunk by sun and wind … the skin of my belly came to be cleaving to my back-bone; when I wanted to obey the calls of nature, I fell down on my face then and there; when I stroked my limbs with my hand, hairs rotted at the roots fell away from my body" (from the Majjhima Nikaya).

While meditating one day Siddhartha remembered a passing moment in his childhood when he had slipped into a state of utter calm and equilibrium as he watched a plough turn the earth. He realized with this simple vision that he must somehow return to that humble moment and forge a middle path between the extreme asceticism he had been practicing (and which only leads to more suffering) and the sensual indulgence of his former life in the palace. His fellow shramanas abandoned him, cursing and denouncing him as weak willed. At this point a passing woman named Sujata saw the emaciated renouncer that he had become and offered him a simple gift, a bowl of rice gruel. With this modest nourishment Siddhartha sat down beneath a ficus tree near the town of Gaya (known as Bodh Gaya after the Buddha attained enlightenment here) and made rapid progress. In the middle of his meditations he was challenged by an evil superhuman being named Mara, the embodiment of temptations of all kinds, as well as of fear, delusion, and death. In defeating Mara, Siddhartha metaphorically overcame all such hindrances and quickly attained enlightenment, or bodhi (awakening).

After his awakening, at the age of 35, the Buddha spent several weeks meditating on the various aspects of the truth, which he called dharma, that he had realized. He was initially hesitant to share his teachings, however, for he felt that the complexity of his meditational vision would be too difficult for humans to grasp and would lead to further confusion and suffering. At this point, according to the tradition, the gods went to the Buddha to convince him to accept his vocation of teacher, appealing to his compassion and assuring him that in fact there were people capable of understanding the dharma. One god used the image of a lotus pond: In a lotus pond there are some lotuses still under water or even under the mud; there are others that have risen only up to the water level; and there are still others that stand above water and are untouched by it. In a similar way, in this world there are people of different levels of development. Thus challenged, the Buddha determined to proclaim the insight he had gained and set out for nearby Sarnath, where he would offer his first discourse on the dharma.

The Buddha's first "sermon" was given to the very ascetics who had earlier joined him during his meditations but had lost faith in him. They gathered around him as he spoke of what is known as the first turning of the Wheel of the Dharma. He laid out the basic outline of his knowledge and experience of enlightenment to these five shramanas. This first discourse represents, in many ways, the beginning of Buddhism, since it is with the sharing of his personal religious experience that the Buddha created the organized religion that is Buddhism.

The content of that first sermon was so powerful, the tradition maintains, that the Buddha's first five disciples quickly—after one week—attained enlightenment, becoming arhats (worthy ones). These first five followers, in turn, went forth and began to teach the dharma that the Buddha had shared with them; this is the beginning of the Buddhist sangha, the community and institution of monks that is at the heart of the religion. For the next 40 years the Buddha traveled almost without stop throughout India, sharing the dharma and gathering followers. He did, however, stay in one place for three months out of every year during the monsoon season. This period, known later as the rain season retreat, became an essential element in the formation not only of Buddhist monasticism but also of a Buddhist lay community. Monks settled in small communities throughout India, debating amongst themselves, establishing a formal religious canon and an accepted body of religious practices, and sharing the Buddha's teachings with the laypeople. The laity, in turn, supported the monks materially by providing them with shelter, food, robes, and alms bowls.

Toward the end of his life, the Buddha instructed his followers that no single person or group of people could hold authority over the community of monks and laypeople. Rather, the authority was to be shared by all. As much as this created an egalitarian religious community, it also, after the Buddha's death, opened the way both for productive debate about the meaning and significance of the teachings that the Buddha had left behind and for disagreement and schism. Initially the Buddha's teachings were only preserved orally by followers who had actually heard his discourses. These teachings were gathered in three collections, or "baskets." These three sets of what the tradition regards as the Buddha's actual words are known as the Tripitaka (Pali, Tipitaka): the Vinaya (Discipline), the Dharma (Doctrine), and the Abhidharma (Pali, Abhidhamma; Advanced Doctrine). As these collections were being formed, debates arose among the different groups of monks about the content of these discourses as well as their significance. Furthermore, new situations that had not been explicitly addressed by the Buddha arose, leading to the need for new rules and resulting in further disagreements.

These debates often led to schisms within the Buddhist community. The tradition records that shortly after the Buddha's death a council was held in the town of Rajagriha (present-day Rajgir, in Bihar) to discuss issues of doctrine and practice; another council was held about a century later. As a result of the disagreements—over proper practice and doctrine—voiced at these councils, the sangha eventually divided into two different lines of monastic ordination, the Sthavira (Elders) and the Mahasanghika (Great Assembly), whose differences initially mostly revolved around issues of monastic discipline, or Vinaya. These two groups would evolve into the Theravada and Mahayana, respectively, developing different doctrinal and ritual standards and becoming established in different parts of Asia.


ascetic layperson
worthy one
female monk
enlightenment; awakening
an enlightened being who works for the welfare of all those still caught in samsara
Ch'an (Zen in Japan)
a school of Mahayana Buddhism
proper giving; generosity
deity; divine being; divine
dharma (Pali, dhamma)
the teachings of the Buddha; order (in Hinduism)
duhkha (Pali, dukkha)
suffering; unsatisfactoriness
Eightfold Path (marga; Pali, magga)
a systematic and practical way to realize the truth and eliminate suffering, traditionally divided into three distinct phases that should be progressively mastered
Four Noble Truths
the doctrinal foundation of Buddhism: (1) the existence of suffering, (2) the arising of suffering, (3) the cessation of suffering, and (4) the Eightfold Path
law of cause and effect; act; deed
Mahayana (sometimes called Northern Buddhism)
one of two major schools of Buddhism practiced mainly in China, Japan, Korea, and Tibet; evolved from the Mahasanghika (Great Assembly)
the absolute elimination of karma; the absence of all states (the Sanskrit word literally means "to blow out, to extinguish")
pancha sila
five ethical precepts; the basic ethical guidelines for the layperson
honor; worship
the cyclical nature of the cosmos; rebirth
arising (of suffering); the second noble Truth
community of monks
ethics; morality
10 paramitas
10 perfections of the bodhisattva: (1) dana (generosity), (2) sila (morality), (3) ksanti (patience and forbearance), (4) virya (vigor, the endless and boundless energy that bodhisattvas employ when helping others), (5) dhyana (meditation), (6) prajna (wisdom), (7) upaya (skillful means), (8) conviction, (9) strength, and (10) knowledge
Theravada (sometimes called Southern Buddhism)
one of two major schools of Buddhism practiced mainly in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar [Burma], Sri Lanka, and Thailand; evolved from the Sthavira (Elders)
Three Refuges, or Triple Gem
the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha; the taking of the Three Refuges is a basic rite of passage in Buddhism
tripitaka (Pali, tipitaka)
three baskets, or three sets; the Tripitaka (Pali, Tipitaka), a collection of the Buddha's teachings—the Vinaya (Discipline), the Dharma (Doctrine), and the Abhidharma (Pali, Abhidhamma; Advanced Doctrine—forms the basis of the Buddhist canon
the concept of skillful means
Vajrayana, or Tantra
a school of Mahayana Buddhism
Wheel of the Dharma
visual symbol representing the Buddha's preaching his first sermon and also, with its eight spokes, of Buddhism's Eightfold Path Yogacara, or Consciousness-Only school of Buddhism

One of the most important figures in the history of Buddhism was Ashoka, the ruler (230–207 b.c.e.) of a large empire in India who not only became a Buddhist himself but established a model of dharmic kinship that would remain the standard template for all Buddhist rulers to follow. Ashoka erected numerous large stone pillars throughout India with edicts inscribed on them. These edicts laid out many of the basic aspects of the Buddha's teachings as well as guidelines for how to live a good Buddhist life. Furthermore, Ashoka established the standard of royal support for the monks by building monastic shelters, planting shade trees and digging wells to aid travelers, and spreading the physical remains of the Buddha throughout India. The physical remains were particularly important in the spread and growth of Buddhism. Enshrined in chaityas and stupas—burial mounds of varying size—they became objects of devotion and important gathering places, often associated with significant events in the Buddha's life, allowing the monks to spread the dharma to larger and larger groups. Ashoka also sent out a number of missionaries, including his own son, Mahinda, to introduce Buddhism and establish monastic orders in other parts of the world, such as Sri Lanka, Southwest and Southeast Asia, and even Greece.

Ashoka had set an important precedent in his support for Buddhism; the support of rulers was an essential element in the expansion and vitality of the religion. For their part, kings were attracted to Buddhism because of its emphasis on individual morality, the lack of caste hierarchy, and the symbiosis between the sangha and the state. The monks needed the king to provide land, food, and protection, while the king found in the sangha a moral legitimization of his righteous rule. The ideal king was a dharmaraja (king of dharma)—just, generous, and moral, upholding and promoting the teachings of the Buddha. This basic model is one that continues to be replicated in Buddhist countries today.

As Buddhism spread, the Theravada school (sometimes called Southern Buddhism) became particularly well established in Southern Asia, in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, and Cambodia. The Mahayana school (sometimes called Northern Buddhism) spread north, first to China and then to the rest of East Asia. These two major divisions in turn divided into many different subgroups and schools, adapting to their particular settings. In Tibet, for instance, the form of Mahayana that became established was Tantra (or Vajrayana), an extrapolation from the core Mahayana beliefs that puts particular emphasis on the transformative effects of ritual. In China and then later Japan, the Ch'an (Zen in Japan) school developed a form of the Mahayana that places particular emphasis on the meditation experience. Thus, although Buddhism essentially died out in India by the thirteenth century, its fundamentally missionary character, and its ability to adapt and adopt, enabled it to flourish elsewhere in Asia.

Buddhism first entered the Western consciousness with colonialism. In the nineteenth century intellectual interest in Buddhism developed in Europe and North America, creating a distinct scholarly field focused on the translation of Buddhist texts from their original languages, as well as their philosophical analysis, an offshoot of which was the gradual availability of accessible books on Buddhist belief and practice. Although there have never been huge numbers of Buddhists in the West—estimates vary, but probably no more than 5 million of the world's 500 million Buddhists live in the West—they have been an important religious presence. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the West also saw an influx of Asian immigrants who brought with them Buddhism, establishing small temples and communities throughout Europe and North America.


As Buddhism gained followers and monks began to form distinct groups, often united on the basis of doctrinal commonalities and matters of monastic discipline, Buddhism was marked by a doctrinal explosion. By the first millennium of the common era, substantial new texts began to appear: commentaries on the Buddha's sermons, new Vinaya texts, and entirely new texts that were claimed to have been hidden by the Buddha himself. This doctrinal profusion is truly one of the hallmarks of Buddhism. That said, however, certain key doctrines also are shared by all Buddhists.

Underlying virtually all of Buddhism is the basic doctrine of samsara, which Buddhism shares with Hinduism. Samsara is really a fundamental worldview or ethos, an understanding of the world that holds that all beings, including animals, are part of an endless (and beginningless) cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. Furthermore, Buddhism holds that the physical universe is itself made up of infinite world systems, spread out infinitely in space, and that these world systems, like the individual person, are also subject to the cycle of birth and rebirth. It was, in many ways, the realization of the horror of samsara that led to the Upanishads and the shramana movements. These movements attempted to devise a religious mode of action and thought that would provide a way out of this endless cycle of rebirth.

The Buddhist view of the cosmos is predicated on samsara and holds that there are both different world systems and different realms that are arranged in a tripartite structure: the "sense-desire" realm at the bottom, the "pure form" realm above that, and the "formless" realm at the top. Within these three divisions are further subrealms into which a being can be reborn: the human realm, the animal realm, the hungry ghost (preta) realm, various hells, and, higher up, deva (divine) realms. Although it is not the highest realm, the human realm is considered the most promising because in this realm are both suffering, which acts as a motivation to advance, and free will, which enables humans to act on this impulse. It is important to note that Buddhism holds that even the divine beings, despite their power, are subject to the laws of samsara.

Karma (which means "act" or "deed"), another concept shared with Hinduism, is the linchpin of the whole religious system of Buddhism, in that karma is what determines the quality of each rebirth and keeps the individual in the samsara. On its most basic level, karma is the natural law of cause and effect, inherent in the very structure of the world, a cumulative system in which good acts produce good results, bad acts bad results. Beings are then reborn in good or bad realms, depending on their cumulative karma in each birth. Karma is frequently described in Buddhist texts as being a seed (phalam) that will eventually grow fruit, which is, naturally, dependent on what sort of seed was sown.

The Buddhist understanding of karma, though, further stipulates that it is not just the act that determines the karmic result but also the motivation behind the act. Thus, good acts done for the wrong reason can produce negative karmic results, and likewise bad acts that might have been done for good reasons (or accidentally) do not necessarily produce negative karmic results. Indeed, Buddhism holds that bad thoughts are every bit as detrimental as intentional bad actions.

Negative karma is most typically created through intentionally harming other beings and through greed. Positive karma is most easily created through compassionate acts and thoughts and through giving selflessly (which is, ultimately, motivated by compassion).

The doctrine of impermanence (anitya) is rooted in the four visions that prompted Siddhartha to abandon his life in the palace. What he realized, when he saw old age, disease, and death, was that all beings are in a fundamental state of flux and, ultimately, decay. This is, in an important sense, a fundamental corollary to the reality of samsara—the human being, just as the world, is constantly evolving, decaying, and reforming. Furthermore, it is the failure to recognize this flux that causes beings to suffer, since they grasp on to that which is impermanent—life, love, material objects, and so on—wishing it will last. The Buddha condenses this basic idea in a simple pronouncement (in Pali): yad aniccam tam dukkham (whatever is impermanent is suffering). Since everything is necessarily impermanent, then everything ultimately involves suffering, which he succinctly expresses in the phrase sabbam dukkham (everything is suffering).

The doctrine of no self (anatman; Pali, anatta) is frequently misunderstood in the West. The Buddha does not mean that human beings have no personality but, rather, that because everything in the world is impermanent, there can be no permanent self. In this way Buddhism significantly breaks from Hindu doctrine, which holds that there does exist a permanent self that is reborn time and time again in samsara. But if there is no permanent self, what is it that is reborn? It is karmic residue alone. In his second sermon, the Buddha explains that what we think of as the self is only a collection of personality traits (skandas). They create the impression that there are both objects to be perceived and a person to perceive the objects, when in fact all of these objects are impermanent, constantly changing.

One of the clearest expressions of this basic Buddhist idea is demonstrated in a conversation between the monk Nagasena and King Milinda, contained in the Milindapanha. Nagasena uses the example of a chariot to illustrate no self, explaining to Milinda that although one can point to, ride, or see a chariot, it only exists in-sofar as it is a collection of parts—axles, wheels, reins, and so on—and that since no single part can be called the chariot, there is no essential, independent thing called a chariot, just as there is no essential, independent self.

Often called "the chain of conditioned arising" or "the chain of becoming," pratitya-samutpada (Pali, paticca-samuppada) is broken into 12 links and is one of the most important Buddhist doctrines, one about which Buddha's disciple Sariputta says, "Whoever understands conditioned arising understands the dharma." This is a more elaborate understanding of karma and samsara, a vision of cause and effect in which everything in the world is dependent on some other thing for its existence, succinctly expressed in this simple formula, which occurs in any number of Pali texts: "When this is, that is / This arising, that arises / When this is not, that is not / This ceasing, that ceases." In other words, one thing begets another. Birth begets life, which begets decay, which begets death, which begets birth, and around and around. To get out of the circle, one must break the chain somewhere, most efficiently at its weakest link, ignorance, which is done by applying oneself to mastering the dharma.

The Four Noble Truths is really the doctrinal foundation of Buddhism, a kind of basic blueprint of the Buddha's teachings, delivered in his first sermon at Sarnath after attaining enlightenment.

The first Noble Truth, suffering (duhkha; Pali, dukkha), posits that suffering exists in the world. This we see in the story of Siddhartha in the palace: The young prince is made aware that the world is not all wonderful, as it appears to be in the palace, but in fact that the rosy life was just an illusion. In the first sermon, the Buddha says that birth is duhkha, old age is duhkha, sickness is duhkha, death is duhkha—in fact, everything is duhkha, including things that seem to be pleasurable.

The first Noble Truth is intended not to engender a pessimistic worldview in Buddhists but, rather, to alert them to the reality of the world and to promote a clear, truthful view of that world. Furthermore, the response to the reality of suffering, as we see clearly in the Buddha's own desire to realize and share the dharma, is to show compassion (karuna) and kindness (maitri) to all living beings.

The second Noble Truth is the arising (samudaya) of suffering. Since suffering exists, the Buddha posits, it must have a cause, which is most simply expressed as tanha (thirst or desire). This thirst takes many forms: the desire for life, for things, for love. Although on its face this, too, may seem to engender a pessimistic worldview, in which the individual must stifle all sensual pleasure, it is important again to stress that the Buddha advocates a middle path, between sensual indulgence and extreme asceticism. Pleasurable experiences should be experienced for what they are, without grasping. Indeed, the Buddha pronounces that it is precisely because humans mindlessly grasp things and experiences, always rushing to the next, that they fail to fully experience their lives, including that which is pleasurable. The point then is not to deny the sensual but to fully experience sensations and thoughts as they are happening.

The third Noble Truth is cessation (nirodha) of suffering. Just as the Buddha saw that if suffering exists it must logically have an origin, so, too, must it have an end. The end of duhkha is, logically, related to its source; nirodha comes as a result of ending craving, of stopping the grasping after things that are impermanent. When one stops grasping, one stops generating karma, and it is karma and karma alone that keeps beings trapped in samsara. The absolute elimination of karma is nirvana, eternal freedom from the bondage of samsara.

Of all Buddhist concepts, nirvana has perhaps been the most misunderstood. Although it is frequently equated with heaven or described as a state of bliss, nirvana is actually the absence of all states. The Sanskrit word literally means "to blow out, to extinguish," as one would blow out a candle. Nirvana then refers to the absolute elimination of karma. Since karma is what keeps us in samsara, what constitutes our very being, the elimination of karma logically means an elimination of being. This is the end of duhkha, the end of the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth, beyond all states of existence.

Despite the fact that nirvana is the Buddhist understanding of ultimate salvation, the Buddha himself had little to say on the topic, often warning his followers of the dangers of grasping on to the end goal at the expense of living a focused, compassionate life. He describes it as the "extinction of desire, the extinction of illusion" and also as the "abandoning and destruction of desire and craving for these Five Aggregates of attachment; that is the cessation of duhkha." When asked once if nirvana were a state or not a state of existence, however, the Buddha responded that this was an unanswerable question and left it at that. The point again is that the focus should be on mindful progression on the path, not on the destination. The person who spends too much time obsessively focusing on nirvana—or on any aspect of existence or doctrinal complexity—is, the Buddha said, like the man who, upon being shot by a poison arrow, asks who shot it, how did he aim, what sort of wood the arrow was made of, and so on. The point is that the man must first remove the arrow before the poison kills him.

That said, however, later Buddhist schools inevitably took up the question of nirvana, frequently engaging in long philosophical analysis of the possibility of describing it in positive terms. In some Mahayana schools nirvana is, in fact, often described as a kind of state of blissful calm.

The fourth Noble Truth is the Eightfold Path (marga; Pali, magga). Often envisioned as the Wheel of the Dharma with eight spokes, this is the middle path between extreme asceticism and extreme hedonism, a systematic and practical way to realize the truth and eliminate suffering. The Eightfold Path is traditionally divided into three distinct phases that should, ideally, be progressively mastered.

The first phase is sila (ethics) and involves purifying one's outward behavior (and motivations for such behavior). The Buddha describes three elements in sila (the first three steps of the Eightfold Path): (1) right action, (2) right speech, and (3) right livelihood. Next comessamadhi (meditation), which is broken down, likewise, into three elements (the next three steps): (4) right effort, (5) right mindfulness, and (6) right concentration. The third phase is prajna (wisdom) and is broken down into two elements (the last two steps): (7) right understanding and (8) right intentions. Prajna is not just knowledge or things one learns. Rather, it is a profound way of understanding being in the world. Prajna is often described as a sword that cuts through all illusion, a mental faculty that enables one to fully experience the world as it is without grasping. A later Mahayana school uses an image of geese reflected on a perfectly still pond to describe this state: The average person looks at the pond and, upon seeing the reflection of a flock of geese, immediately looks up. But the person who has perfected prajna does not look up but, rather, fully experiences the thing that he or she is seeing in the moment, the reality of the reflection, without distractions. In a sense such a person does not think at all but only sees the world as it is—what the Buddha called yathabhutam (in a state of perpetual flux).

With the rise of Mahayana Buddhism sometime shortly after the turn of the first millennium, new and increasingly more complex doctrines emerged, extending the original teachings of the Buddha. In particular, new understandings of both the character and activity of the Buddha emerged, and new doctrines evolved that held that the Buddha had not, in fact, completely left the world when he died and attained nirvana but was still an active presence in the world.

This is first articulated in the doctrine of the various bodies (kayas) of the Buddha. The first of these bodies—which are not, in fact, conceived of strictly as physical forms but rather more like the different ways in which the Buddha continues to be present in the world—is the dharmakaya, or "body of the teachings." This is the Buddha's form as wisdom, truth, and the real nature of reality (emptiness). This is that which characterizes the Buddha as the Buddha. Sometimes called Buddhaness, dharmakaya is the whole collection of wonderful qualities that are known as the Buddha. It also refers to the teachings, in their essence. The second body is called the nirmanakaya, or "transformation body" (also sometimes called the rupakaya, or "form body"). This is the earthly form, or manifestation, of the Buddha. Finally there is a more rarified form of the Buddha called the sambhogakaya, or "enjoyment body," the form of the Buddha that those who have attained enlightenment enjoy and interact with.

Related to this idea of the multiple bodies of the Buddha was the emergence of the concept of the bodhisattva—an enlightened being who works for the welfare of all those still caught in samsara—which is perhaps the hallmark of the Mahayana schools. Although bodhisattva was a common word in the earliest of Buddhist texts, these pre-Mahayana schools held that once the Buddha had attained enlightenment, he taught the dharma to his disciples and then, on his death, entered nirvana, or parinirvana, thus ending his existence in the realm of samsara forever. The Buddha's immediate disciples were known as arhats (worthy ones) upon attaining enlightenment, and they too entered nirvana upon death. The Mahayana, however, were critical of this position—they derisively called the arhats pratyekabuddhas, or "solitary Buddhas"—and posited that the Buddha and all other enlightenment beings postponed final nirvana out of their compassion for the sufferings of other beings, choosing to remain in samsara to perfect their own Buddhahood and work for the benefit of all other beings, until each one attains enlightenment.

There are a number of important elements here. For one thing, all beings were now conceived as at once having the innate potential to become a Buddha and also sharing in a kind of universal enlightenment as well. The path then was reconceived as being the path of the bodhisattva, a path that takes many, many lives but is intent on developing bodhicitra (the awakened mind and the very quality of enlightenment), a quality that fundamentally shifts one's attention away from the self to a selfless concern for the well-being of others. Each bodhisattva takes a vow to help other beings and to continue to do so indefinitely, a vow that involves cultivating a set of six—later expanded to 10—perfections, or paramitas. The 10 perfections are (1) dana (generosity), (2) sila (morality), (3) ksanti (patience and forbearance), (4) virya (vigor, the endless and boundless energy that bodhisattvas employ when helping others), (5) dhyana (meditation), (6) prajna (wisdom), (7) upaya (skillful means), (8) conviction, (9) strength, and (10) knowledge. Once a bodhisattva has mastered these 10 perfections, then he is fully realized as a buddha.

With the rise of the ideal of the bodhisattva came also the development of a complex pantheon of enlightened beings. Three of the most popular and most important bodhisattvas are Maitreya, Avalokiteshvara, and Manjushri.

Eventually the Buddha's teachings will lose their potency owing to the natural decay of the world. When things become unbearable, Maitreya will be reborn and will provide for the welfare of all beings and promote a new set of teachings.

The quintessential Buddhist savior figure and the embodiment of compassion, Avalokiteshvara is perhaps the most popular of all bodhisattvas. His name is significant: He is the "lord who sees all," in the sense that he sees all suffering and responds immediately. He saves us from dangers: fire, drowning in a river, being lost at sea, murder, demonic attack, fierce beasts and noxious snakes or insects, legal punishment, attack by bandits, falling from steep precipices, extremes of weather, internecine civil or military unrest, and others.

Especially associated with wisdom, Manjushri is a key figure in numerous Mahayana scriptures, and he has been the focus of significant cultic activity throughout Mahayana Buddhist countries. His name means "gentle glory," although he is called by many names and epithets, some of which refer to his relation to speech (Vagishvara, "lord of speech") or to his disarming youth (Kumarabhuta, "in the form of a youth" or "having become the crown prince"). Because he is destined soon to become a Buddha, Manjushri is often called "prince of the teachings."

A concept that first appears in the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) texts, the idea of emptiness (shunyata) extends the Buddha's teachings about dependent origination and posits that all phenomena are dependent for their being on some other thing. The first-century thinker Nagarjuna introduced the most radical understanding of this concept, arguing that just as the terms "long" and "short" take on meaning only in relation to each other and are themselves devoid of independent qualities (longness or shortness), so too do all phenomena (all dharmas) lack their own being (svabhava). If a thing were to have an independent and unchanging own being, Nagarjuna reasons, then it would follow that it is neither produced nor existent, because origination and existence presuppose change and transience. All things, physical as well as mental, can originate and develop only when they are empty of their own being. Nevertheless, Nagarjuna contends, elements do have what he calls a conventional reality, so that we still interact with them, think thoughts, and so on, even if ultimately they are empty of reality. Related to this is the concept of skillful means, upaya, which refers to the bodhisattva's employment of whatever means are necessary to help beings toward enlightenment. Language, for instance, is itself empty, in that it depends on external references to make sense, but language is necessary to communicate and is therefore a skillful means through which to spread the dharma.


One of the things that makes the theory and practice of ethics (sila) particularly interesting in the Buddhist context is the tension that exists, right on the surface, between the individual's responsibility for his or her own salvation—as exemplified by the Buddha's advice that one must be one's own island (atta dipa), dependent on no one other than one's self for salvation—and the individual's connection with social life, as governed by the collective nature of karma. This is perhaps most dramatically illustrated by the Buddha's own life story. For instance, in Johnston's translation of The Buddhacarita, or, Acts of the Buddha, the young Siddhartha's wife, Yashodhara, when she hears that Siddhartha has abandoned her, falls upon the ground "like a Brahminy duck without its mate"—a common symbol of lifelong marital partnership, such that one duck will die of remorse upon the death of the other. Likewise, his son is described as "poor Rahula," who is fated "never to be dandled in his father's lap" (pp. viii, 58).

The ethical and moral challenge is always to strike a balance between one's concern for the suffering of others and one's own progress on the path; too much concern for other people can be a hindrance, just as not enough can generate negative karma. The key to Buddhist ethics, if not in fact to the whole of the Buddha's teachings, is the cultivation of mindfulness (sati)—to develop a mental attitude of complete and selfless awareness, a mental attitude that necessarily influences the manner in which one acts toward other living beings, a mental awareness that fundamentally informs one's every act and intention to act.

For the monk the ethical system is extremely complex and extensive, contained primarily and explicitly in the Vinaya but secondarily and implicitly in every utterance of the Buddha. To be a monk is to be necessarily ethical. For the layperson the ethical guidelines are less specific, seeming to amount to "live the proper life." This means that one must be aware that all acts and all beings are part of samsara and are thus caught up in karma and pratitya-samutpada (Pali, paticca-samuppada; the chain of conditioned arising). Whatever one does has effects, and those effects are not always obvious. The implications here are perhaps best ethically stated when the Buddha says, "Oh Bhikkhus, it is not easy to find a being who has not formerly been your mother, or your father, your brother, your sister or your son or daughter" (Samyutta Nikaya, vol. II, p. 189). In other words, any act necessarily affects not only the immediate actor but all beings, who are, logically, karmically connected.

It is also important to remember that we are still within the basic Brahmanical milieu here. What we see in Buddhism, however, is an emphasis on the individual as he or she fits into society, not an emphasis on how society molds or controls the individual, as we see in Hinduism, where the emphasis is on order and duty, on making sure that everything and everyone stays in the proper place—hence caste, life stages, and so on. This is not to say that this societal component is entirely absent in Buddhism, since one of the motivations for the individual to act ethically is to make society work. Without social order things would fall utterly apart, as is perhaps best articulated in what is sometimes called the Buddhist book of Genesis, the Aganna Sutta, which describes a social world in which chaos and decay emerge precisely because beings act greedily and selfishly. Proper, ethical action in Buddhism is not performed out of duty or some higher cosmic order, however; rather, one acts ethically out of one's own free will, because without such proper action, the individual can make no progress on the path.

The importance of proper giving (dana) is utterly central to Buddhist ethics and to the life of both the layperson and the monk; indeed, dana can be said to be the key to monk-lay relations. The first principle that must be noted here is that in Buddhism there is a marked ambiguity about material wealth. The concept of nonattachment, the absence of grasping, is of crucial importance here; from the Buddhist perspective material goods are only important as a means of cultivating nonattachment. Again, however, the middle way is emphasized: Too many possessions can lead to attachment, just as too few can lead to craving. Any material prosperity offers at once the opportunity for greater giving and the cultivation and expression of nonattachment, but such prosperity also offers a temptation toward the kind of antidharmic self-indulgence that leads to increased entrapment in the web of worldly existence.

The model donor in Buddhism is the laywoman Sujata, who gave Siddhartha the simple and selfless gift of rice gruel, which enabled him to gain the strength to make the final push to enlightenment. What makes this act of dana so important is that Sujata gave her gift modestly, with no self-interest, no expectation of gain or reward; she was responding with selfless compassion to Siddhartha's obvious need.

Equally important as a model donor is the king Vessantara, whose story is told in a popular tale from the Jataka collection that provides not only a model of ethical giving but also a cautionary tale about the karmic consequences of giving too much. In this story Vessantara eventually gives away his kingdom and prosperity, his wife and children, everything, and the result is suffering for all until everything is restored and Vessantara realizes the need to give modestly.

Monks also engage in dana, although rather than giving material goods, which they necessarily depend on the laity for, they give what the Dhammapada says is the best gift of all: "The gift of dharma excels all gifts."

Two important metaphors for proper ethical giving are bija and khsetra. Bija basically means "seed" but is nearly always used to describe the seed of an auspicious act. This act, if it is indeed done with the correct selfless motives, bears karmic fruit (phala); the act itself is called kushala, which can be defined as "good, moral, skillful, proper," or, to use the best Buddhism definition, that which is "karmically wholesome"—in other words, a gift that is given with proper intention, given out of selfless compassion. The best field in which to plant a seed is the sangha (community of monks), and the best seed to plant is an act of giving, dana. The sangha is thus consistently referred to as a fertile karmic field. This imagery is further developed in times when there are monastic schisms or crises, in which case the monks are sometimes described as a barren field in which no seeds will bear fruit. This imagery is not limited to the monks and gifts to them but refers to any auspicious action.

Buddhist acts of charity, then, are fundamentally symbiotic in nature. The laypeople provide the monks with the material support that they need—shelter, robes, food, and so on—and in the process cultivate the crucial attitudes of nonattachment and compassion, a kind of domestic asceticism that is not disruptive of the social order. The monks, in turn, depend on the laypeople and return the material gifts with the gift of the Buddha's teachings. Furthermore, the ideology of dana is such that the laypeople's gifts will only bear "fruit" (that is, positive karma) if the monks are pure (in other words, a fertile field). If a particular monastery becomes corrupt, then the laypeople will give somewhere else, providing a kind of ethical imperative for monastic purity.

A crucial element in all of this is the concept of punya (merit), which is positive karma. By giving selflessly, one "earns" merit, accumulating positive karma, which determines the quality of one's next rebirth. If one is too attached to this merit, though—too focused on the end products and not the selfless and compassionate act of giving (and giving up)—then one in fact earns not positive karma but negative, which will hinder one's ultimate spiritual progress.

The pancha sila are the basic ethical guidelines for the layperson, although they are not necessarily followed rigidly by everyone. In some ways they are rather like the Ten Commandments in Judaism and Christianity, in that they are the basis for ethical behavior, a kind of practical blueprint. A fundamental difference from the Ten Commandments, though, is that the pancha sila are voluntarily followed and are a matter of personal choice, not an imperative to act in a particular manner.

The first guideline is No killing. The basic idea here is that every individual is connected with all other living beings. Buddhists go to considerable lengths to qualify this precept, giving five conditions that govern it: (1) presence of a living being, (2) knowledge of this, (3) intention to kill, (4) act of killing, and (5) death.

What is most important about this first precept is not its negative form, injunction against killing, but its positive aspect, that of compassion and loving kindness. This positive aspect is one of the most common things upon which laypeople meditate, often with this verse from the Metta Sutta: "May all beings be happy and secure; / May their hearts be wholesome. / Whatever living beings there be—/ Feeble or strong, tall, stout or medium, / Short, small or large, without exception—/ Seen or unseen, / Those dwelling far or near, / Those who are born or who are to be born, / May all beings be happy."

The second guideline is No taking what is not given. This is particularly important for the monks. Here the concept of dana is crucial. Because one of the chief ethical activities of the layperson is to give unselfishly to the sangha, this giving is contingent on the monks accepting, also unselfishly, whatever is given. The monks are not to take anything that is not given to them. This holds true also for the layperson, in that he or she is not to steal.

The third guideline is No sexual misconduct. This prevents lust and envy, which are the most powerful forms of thirst (tanha).

The fourth guideline is No false speech. Lies create deception and illusion and lead to grasping. Also, for the monks, this is about not speaking false doctrines.

The fifth guideline is No liquor, which clouds the mind and prevents sati (mindfulness).

In addition to these five basic principles, monks follow additional basic rules, sometimes three, sometimes five: No untimely meals (thereby promoting group sharing of food and hindering the desire to hoard); No dancing or playing of music (thereby promoting a sober, nonfrivolous life); No adornments or jewelry (which would be against the basic ascetic attitude of the monk); No high seats (an injunction intended to promote equality in the sangha); and No handling of money (thereby preventing greed and attachments).


The Buddha famously told his chief disciple, Ananda, that after his death, the dharma he was leaving behind would continue to be the present teacher, the "guiding light," to all future Buddhists, a scene that establishes the paramount importance of sacred texts in Buddhism. Tradition holds that during the first rainy-season retreat after the Buddha's death, thus sometime in the latter half of the sixth century b.c.e., the Buddha's disciples gathered at Rajagriha (present-day Rajgir, in Bihar) and orally collected all of the Buddha's teachings into three sets, or "three baskets" (tripitaka; Pali, tipitaka). By about the end of the first century c.e., these oral texts were written down. These three collections form the basis of the Buddhist canon.

The first collection of the Pali Tipitaka is the Sutta Pitaka, some 30 volumes of the Buddha's discourses as well as various instructional and ritual texts. The Vinaya Pitaka, or collection of monastic rules, includes the list of 227 rules for the monks (311 for nuns), called the Patimokkha, and detailed accounts as to how and why they were developed. The Vinaya also contains narratives of the Buddha's life, rules for rituals, ordination instructions, and an extensive index of topics covered. The third group of texts is the Abhidhamma Pitaka, or collection of scholastic doctrines. These are highly abstract, philosophical texts dealing with all manner of issues, particularly the minutiae that make up human experience. The last of these texts, the Patthana Abhidhamma, stretches for some 6,000 pages.

In addition to the fundamental texts of the Tipitaka, each text also is accompanied by an extensive commentary, and often several subcommentaries, that clarifies the grammatical and linguistic ambiguities of the text and also extends the analysis, serving as a kind of reader's (or listener's) guide through the book's sometimes confusing philosophical and ritual points.

With the rise of the Mahayana, new books were added to this basic canonical core, most of them composed in Sanskrit; the tradition holds, however, that these were not new sacred texts but were the higher teachings of the Buddha himself that were set aside for a later revealing. Perhaps the best known of these is the Lotus Sutra, composed probably around the turn of the first millennium, and also the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) texts. Additional texts continued to be added as the Mahayana schools developed in India. As Buddhism branched out, these texts, and the earlier Tipitaka, were translated by Buddhist monks from both Tibet and China. These translations sometimes led to further expansion of the canon, particularly in Tibet, where the rise of the Vajrayana (Tantric) schools led to more new texts; likewise, as Ch'an (Zen in Japan) developed, new sacred texts were written and preserved.


Early Buddhism employed a variety of visual symbols to communicate aspects of the Buddha's teachings: the Wheel of the Dharma, symbolic of his preaching ("turning") his first sermon and also, with its eight spokes, of Buddhism's Eightfold Path; the bodhi tree, which symbolizes not only the place of his enlightenment (under the tree) but the enlightenment experience itself; the throne, symbolizing his status as "ruler" of the religious realm and also, through its emptiness, his passage into final nirvana; the deer, symbolizing the place of his first sermon, the Deer Park at Sarnath, and also the protective qualities of the dharma; the footprint, symbolizing both his former physical presence on earth and his temporal absence; and the lotus, symbolic of the individual's journey up through the "mud" of existence, to bloom, with the aid of the dharma, into pure enlightenment. Later Buddhism added countless other symbols. Among them, in the Mahayana, for instance, the sword becomes a common symbol of the incisive nature of the Buddha's teachings; in Tibet the vajra (diamond or thunderbolt) is a ubiquitous symbol of the pure and unchanging nature of the dharma.

The Practice of Deity Yoga

One of the most common meditational practices in Tibetan Buddhism is deity yoga. Tantric practitioners learn to think, speak, and act as if they were already a fully enlightened buddha through visualizing their body, speech, and mind as the body, speech, and mind of an enlightened being, in order to actualize, or make real in the present, their latent potential for enlightenment.

These practitioners meditate, often with the use of mandalas and mantras, on a particular deity—an enlightened being, such as the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara—that represents their own potential for enlightenment, their own Buddha nature, which is, according to the Vajrayana schools, always there, albeit obscured by illusion and ignorance. In the case of deity yoga directed to Avalokiteshvara, the meditator sits before an image of the bodhisattva and mentally focuses on his compassion and wisdom, often beginning with thoughts of praise (sadhanas), progressing to contemplation of the deity's sublime qualities, and sometimes constructing an elaborate mental "world" inhabited by the deity; then gradually the meditator envisions everything, including his or her own mind, as being a manifestation of the deity. Accordingly, the practitioner eventually realizes through this meditation that there is no difference between the mind of the deity—or, for that matter, the Buddha himself—and his or her own mind.


The Buddha's immediate disciples not only formed the first Buddhist community but also were responsible for orally preserving his teachings. One of the most important of these early followers was Ananda, the Buddha's cousin, who accompanied the Buddha for more than 20 years and figures prominently in many early Buddhist texts. Sariputta, one of the Buddha's first converts (along with Mahamogallana), was the Buddha's most trusted disciple and was often depicted as the wisest. Sariputta also served as the Buddha's son's teacher when he joined the sangha (community of monks). Another important early figure is Mahakassapa, a Brahman who became a close disciple of the Buddha. Mahakassapa presided over the first Buddhist Council at Rajagriha (present-day Rajgir, in Bihar) and was later celebrated in Ch'an (Zen in Japan) as the receiver of the first transmission of the Buddha's special, esoteric teachings, when the Buddha, upon being asked a question about the dharma, is said to have held up a flower and Mahakassapa smiled, silently signifying his reception of this special teaching. The Buddha's aunt, Mahapajapati, also figures prominently in several early texts. Not only did she raise him after his mother's death but she was ordained as the first woman admitted to sangha.

The Greco-Bactrian king Milinda, also called Menander or Menandros, reigned over Afghanistan and Northern India in the latter half of the second century b.c.e. and is one of the most important royal converts to Buddhism. He had a series of discussions with a Buddhist monk, Nagasena, which were compiled into a famous work entitled the Milindapanha. Perhaps the most famous of all historical figures in Buddhism is the Indian king Ashoka (ruled 230–207 b.c.e.). He was the founder of the Maurya Dynasty and the first king to rule over a united India, as well as being one of Buddhism's first royal patrons. Ashoka abolished war in his empire, restricted killing for food, built hospitals, erected thousands of stupas (Buddhist burial mounds), and engraved a series of edicts on rocks and pillars throughout his empire that articulated the basic moral and ethical principle of Buddhism. Ashoka was also instrumental in the spread of Buddhism outside of India. His son, Mahinda (third century b.c.e.), was the leader of a Buddhist missionary enterprise to Sri Lanka and was thus instrumental in the spread of Buddhism outside of India.

Another important early Buddhist king was Harsha-vardhana (606–47). He ruled a large empire in northern India and became an important Buddhist convert. Like his predecessor Ashoka, he is described in Buddhist texts as a model ruler—benevolent, energetic, and just, active in the administration and prosperity of his empire—and, like Ashoka, he is frequently invoked as a model for all righteous rulers.

There are many early historical figures outside of India. One of the most important records of the early Buddhist world comes to us from the Chinese pilgrim Fa-hsien (fourth to fifth century). Not only did he obtain many Sanskrit texts of the Pali Tipitaka that he translated upon his return to China in 414, but he also wrote an influential record of his travels that remains one of the most informative views of the early Buddhist world in India. He was followed by another Chinese pilgrim, Hsuan-tsang (602–64). Hsuan-tsang, like his predecessor Fa-hsien, was a Buddhist monk who traveled throughout India collecting doctrinal texts, which he then translated from Sanskrit into Chinese, and left a detailed record of his travels. Hsuan-tsang was also the founder in China of the Consciousness-Only (Yogacara) school.

The sixth-century South Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma is a central figure in Chinese and, later, Japanese Buddhism. He arrived at the Chinese court in 520 and is credited with founding the Ch'an (Zen) school of Buddhism. Other important East Asian historical figures are Honen (1133–1212), also called Genku, who in 1175 established the Jodo (Pure Land) school in Japan; Shinran (1173–1263), founder of the True Pure Land School of Japanese Buddhism, who is also credited with popularizing congregational worship and introducing reforms, such as salvation by faith alone, marriage of priests, and meat eating; and Nichiren (1222–82), founder of the Nichiren sect in Japan.

In Tibet the monk Padmasambhava (eighth century) is one of the best-known and important figures. He is a Tantric saint who was instrumental in introducing Buddhism to Tibet; mythologically he is credited with converting to Buddhism the local demons and gods who tormented the Tibetan people, turning them into protectors of the religion. Atisha (982–1054) was an Indian monk and scholar who went to Tibet in 1038. He is credited with entirely reforming the prevailing Buddhism in Tibet by enacting measures to enforce celibacy in the existing order and to raise the level of morality within the Tibetan sangha. He founded the Kadampa school, which later became the Geluk-pa school. Like his Chinese counterparts Fa-hsien and Hsuan-tsang, Buston (1008–64), a Tibetan Buddhist, translated much of the Buddhist sacred literature, including Tantra texts, into classic Tibetan and is sometimes credited with making the definitive arrangements of the Kanjur and Tanjur, the two basic Tibetan collections of Buddhist principles. He also produced a history of Buddhism in Tibet that is among the most important documents for Buddhism's early development in that region. Finally, two extremely important semihistorical figures are Marpa (1012–96) and Milarepa (1040–1143). Marpa was a Tibetan layman thought to have imported songs and texts from Bengal to Tibet, but he is best known and most venerated as the guru of Milarepa. Milarepa was a saint and poet of Tibetan Buddhism who continues to be extremely popular. His well-known autobiography recounts how in his youth he practiced black magic in order to take revenge on relatives who deprived his mother of the family inheritance and then later repented and sought Buddhist teaching. Milarepa stands figuratively as the model for all Tibetans.

One of the most important religious and social leaders in Tibet is the Panchen Lama, who ranks second only to the Dalai Lama among the Grand Lamas of the Geluk-pa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. His seat is in the Tashilhumpo monastery at Shigatse. The current Dalai Lama (born in 1935) is the spiritual and political leader of Tibetan Buddhists. He has lived in exile since 1959, when the Chinese invaded Tibet. The Dalai Lama has been instrumental not only in aiding the Tibetan people but also in spreading Buddhism to the West.

The Sri Lankan Buddhist Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933) stands as one of the most important Buddhist propagandists of the modern era. Dharmapala was intimately involved in the restoration of Bodh Gaya in India, the birthplace of Buddhism, and with spreading Buddhism to the West. He was for much of his life closely associated with Henry Steele Olcott (1832–1907), an American who, along with H.H. Blavatsky, founded the Theosophical Society. Olcott worked to establish a new lay Buddhism in Sri Lanka, where he founded schools and lay organizations, and he wrote The Buddhist Catechism, which was an important tool in reestablishing and preserving Buddhism among the lay population of Sri Lanka.

One of the most important early scholars of Buddhism was T.W. Rhys Davids (1843–1922). Rhys Davids was professor of Pali at London University and one of the founders of the university's School of Oriental and African Studies. Along with his wife, Caroline, he pioneered the translation, study, and transmission of Pali text in the West. Ananda Metteyya (Charles Henry Allan Bennett; 1872–1923) is another important Western Buddhist. The son of an electrical engineer, he was born in London and trained as an analytical chemist before becoming the first British bhikkhu (monk) and Buddhist missionary. Bhikkhu Ñanamoli (Osbert Moore; 1905–60) was a pioneer British bhikkhu and Pali scholar who went to Sri Lanka and was ordained as a monk. He translated The Visuddhimagga into English as The Path of Purification; he also translated Nettippakarana (The Guide) and Patisambhidamagga (Path of Discrimination), as well as most of the sections of the Majjhima Nikaya and several from the Samyutta Nikaya. Ayya Khema (Ilse Ledermann; 1923–97) was born in Berlin to Jewish parents; in 1938 she escaped from Germany and began studying Buddhism. In 1978 she helped to establish Wat Buddha-Dhamma, a forest monastery near Sydney, Australia. She later set up the International Buddhist Women's Centre as a training center for Sri Lankan nuns and the Parappuduwa Nun's Island at Dodanduwa, Sri Lanka.


One of the most important biographical accounts of the Buddha's life, the Buddhacarita, is also the first complete biography of the Buddha; it was written by Asvaghosa (second century). Perhaps the most important theologian of early Buddhism was Nargarjuna (second to third century), sometimes called "the second Buddha." Nagarjuna is considered to be the founder of the Madhyamika (Middle Way) school and is counted as a patriarch of both Zen and Vajrayana (Tantra). He is held in the highest regard by all branches of the Mahayana. Another important early author was Kumarajiva (344–413), a Buddhist scholar and missionary who had a profound influence in China as a translator and a clarifier of Buddhist terminology and philosophy. Buddhaghosa (fifth century) was one of the greatest Buddhist scholars in the religion's history. He translated Sinhalese commentaries into Pali, wrote numerous commentaries himself, and composed the Visuddhimagga (later translated as Path of Purification by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli). Asanga (310–90) was the founder of the Yogacara (Consciousness-Only) school of Buddhism. He is closely associated with the Indian philosopher Vasubandhu (420–500). The two founded the Yogacara school of Mahayana Buddhism. Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakosa is one of the fullest expositions of the Abhidharma teachings of the Theravada school. Dhammapala (sixth to seventh century) was the author of numerous commentaries on the Pali canon and stands as one of the most influential figures in the Theravada. Shantideva (seventh to eighth century) is a later representative of the Madhyamika school of Mahayana Buddhism and author of two important surviving works, the Shikshasamuccaya (Compendium of Doctrines) and Bodhisattva Avatara (Entering the Path of Enlightenment), the latter of which is still used in Tibetan Buddhism as a teaching text.


The fundamental structure of Buddhism is that it is a self-governing body of individuals, each of whom is theoretically equal and intent on his or her own salvation while compassionately mindful of fellow beings. As soon as Buddhist monks began to form into groups, however, there was a need for rules (contained in the Vinaya Pitaka) and also for a degree of hierarchy that was needed to keep order, to enforce the rules, and to maintain religious purity within the community. This hierarchy was, and continues to be, based on seniority—the longer one has been a monk, the more seniority he or she has. There is thus no single authority in the Buddhist world. Rather, each school has a leader or group of leaders who provide guidance to the community as a whole, and the degree of internal hierarchy varies considerably from school to school and country to country.

There has always been a symbiosis between the sangha (community of monks) and the laity. The former depends on the latter for material support, while the latter depends on the former for religious instruction. In these roles they keep each other in check. The laity ensures the purity of the sangha in that unless the community of monks remains well regulated and pure, the laity's gifts will not bear fruit (positive karma); likewise, the sangha serves as a constant reminder and model to the laity of the proper, salvifically beneficial religious life.


The earliest holy sites in Buddhism were probably associated with the places where the Buddha's relics were located. The tradition holds that after the Buddha's body was cremated, his remains were divided into several portions that were set up in burial mounds (stupas) at important crossroads. These places provided opportunities for laypeople and monks to contemplate the Buddha's teachings. The number of these reliquaries soon multiplied—Ashoka, the early Indian king, was said to have divided the relics into 84,000 pieces, placing them in stupas throughout India—and generally were under the care and protection of monasteries. Hence, not only were monasteries places of residence for the monks, they also became meeting places for the laity, places to hear the dharma and also to pay homage to the Buddha. Now virtually every monastic complex has a reliquary or stupa and a central meeting hall where the monks gather to recite the twice-monthly Patimokkha (the Vinaya rules) and receive donations from the laity, and also where the laity gather to hear dharma talks.

In medieval India eight special pilgrimage places developed, all associated with significant events in the Buddha's life. Bodh Gaya, for instance, is the site of his enlightenment and continues to be a major place of pilgrimage for monks and laypeople from throughout the Buddhist world, as well as being home to several important monasteries representing Buddhists from many different countries and traditions. Outside of India new holy places developed as Buddhism developed, some places having mythological significance, some having specific historical or national significance associated with famous monks.


The earliest Buddhist traditions placed particular emphasis on the remains of the Buddha, which were divided into three basic categories: physical relics, such as bones and teeth; objects that the Buddha had used, such as his robe and relic bowl; and representations or images of the Buddha. The tradition holds that Ashoka divided the physical relics into 84,000 portions and distributed them throughout India. This is clearly an exaggeration, since the number of bodily relics enshrined in stupas throughout the Buddhist world vastly extends beyond the limits of a single physical body. Images of the Buddha are the most common object of devotion. Although it is typically held that images are to serve as objects of contemplation and emulation, an opportunity to cultivate the Buddha's own auspicious qualities, they are also often invested with a kind of physical power and, like the relics, said to embody something of the presence of the Buddha himself (particularly in the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools). In addition to sculptural images of the Buddha, there is in the Mahayana and Vajrayana a vast pantheon of bodhisattvas who become objects of devotion. Significant monks, likewise, frequently become objects of devotion. In Japan, for instance, the bodies of particularly famous monks are embalmed and sometimes encased in shellac and then put on display, thus displaying a kind of present master.


There are a great many special days in the Buddhist tradition. Some of these days celebrate significant birthdays (of the Buddha or of the bodhisattvas), whereas others have to do with significant events in the monastic world. Typically on a festival day laypeople go to their local temple or monastery and offer food to the monks, vow to uphold the five ethical precepts (pancha sila), and listen to the dharma; they also distribute food to the poor and make offerings of food, robes, and money to the monks.

In countries where the Theravada prevails (Thailand, Myanmar [Burma], Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Laos), the Buddhist New Year is celebrated for three days from the first full-moon day in April. In predominantly Mahayana countries (China, Japan, Korea, and Tibet), the New Year typically starts on the first full-moon day in January, although this varies from country to country.

Vesak (the Buddha's birthday) is the most significant Buddhist festival of the year, as it celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha, all of which tradition holds occurred on the same day. Vesak takes place on the first full-moon day in May.

On the full-moon day of the eighth lunar month (approximately July), the Asalha Puja Vesak takes place. This holiday commemorates the Buddha's first teaching, "The Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma," at the Deer Park in Sarnath.

Uposatha (or Poya) Days are four monthly holy days—when there is a new moon, a full moon, and quarter moons—that are observed in Theravada countries.

Pavarana Day marks the conclusion of the rainy-season retreat (vassa).

The Kathina (Robe Offering) Ceremony is held on an auspicious day within one month of the conclusion of the three-month rainy-season retreat for the monastic order. The ceremony marks not only the return of the monks into the larger community but the time when new robes and other requisites may be offered by the laity to the monks and nuns.

Specific to Myanmar (Burma), Abhidhamma Day celebrates the occasion when the Buddha is said to have gone to the Tushita heaven to teach his dead mother the Abhidharma. It is held on the full moon of the seventh month of the Burmese lunar year starting in April, which corresponds to the full-moon day in October.

In Thailand, at the end of the Kathin Festival season, the Loy Krathong (Floating Bowls) Festival takes place on the full-moon night of the 12th lunar month. People bring bowls made of leaves that they fill with flowers, candles, and incense and then float in the water. As the bowls float away, all bad luck is said to disappear. The traditional practice of Loy Krathong was meant to pay homage to the holy footprint of the Buddha on the beach of the Namada River in India.

Specific to Sri Lanka, the Festival of the Tooth takes place in Kandy, where the tooth relic of the Buddha is enshrined. The tooth itself, kept deep inside many caskets, is never actually seen. But once a year in August, on the night of the full moon, there is a special procession for it, which was traditionally said to protect the kingdom.

Ulambana (Ancestor Day) is celebrated throughout the Mahayana tradition from the first to the 15th days of the eighth lunar month. It is believed that the gates of hell are opened on the first day, and the ghosts may visit the world for 15 days. Food offerings are made during this time to relieve the sufferings of these ghosts. On the 15th day (Ulambana), people visit cemeteries to make offerings to the departed ancestors. Many Theravadins from Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand also observe this festival.

Avalokiteshvara's birthday is a festival that celebrates the bodhisattva ideal represented by Avalokiteshvara (Kuan Yin), who represents the perfection of compassion in the Mahayana traditions of Tibet and China. The festival occurs on the first full-moon day in March.


The most distinct mode of dress in the Buddhist world is the robes worn by monks and nuns. The symbolic significance of this form of dress can be easily seen in the common phrase for becoming a monk, "taking the robes." Although the color and style of robes varies considerably from country to country, as well as from school to school, all monastics wear robes. Not only does the robe physically mark the monk as distinct from the layperson, but it also serves as a physical reminder of the monk's ascetic lifestyle. The Buddha himself fashioned his own robe out of donated scraps and recommended that his followers do the same. Buddhist robes continue to be symbolically constructed in the same manner, sewn together out of many smaller pieces of cloth (although not usually actual scraps). Robes are most often saffron in color, although the range of colors goes from yellow to red, depending on the monastery.

On auspicious days throughout the Buddhist world, particularly full-moon days (Uposatha Days), pious laypeople will often wear special clothing, usually all white, to signify their purity and taking of the pancha sila (five ethical vows). In Sri Lanka the reformer Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933) formalized this mode of dress by proposing a special kind of ascetic layperson (called anagarika) who always adhered to the Buddhist ethical guidelines and always wore the simple, all-white garb.


Specific meals for specific occasions vary considerably throughout the Buddhist world, but virtually all traditions in all countries share two basic dietary prohibitions: alcohol is typically prohibited (always for monks), being regarded as a clouder of reason; likewise, meat is typically not eaten. One of the most basic ethical principles in Buddhism is that which prohibits the killing of any other being; this principle fundamentally informs Buddhist dietary practices. Vegetarianism is the ideal, certainly, but not always the practice, even in monasteries. Monks in particular are put in a kind of ethical double bind when it comes to eating. As much as they may wish to practice vegetarianism, in countries where monks go from home to home begging for their meals, they are also under an ethical and philosophical obligation to take (without grasping) whatever is offered; this provides the laity with the opportunity for a kind of domestic asceticism. Thus, if a layperson offers meat, the monk is obligated to accept it. The prohibition against killing or harming other beings, however, importantly involves intention, and if the monk had no say in the killing of the animal and if it was not killed specifically for him, then no karmic taint adheres to him because there was no ill intention on his part.

On particularly important holidays or festival days, Buddhists often eat special foods. For instance, in many countries laypeople eat a special milk and rice mixture, a kind of gruel intended to symbolically replicate Sujata's initial gift of rice gruel to the Buddha, which enabled him to gain the strength for enlightenment.


Puja, or "honor," is a ubiquitous form of worship throughout the Buddhist world, most typically directed at images of the Buddha and the various bodhisattvas and at the Buddha's relics. Although the Buddha himself explicitly stated that he was not to be worshiped, either while he was alive or after his death—and that it was the dharma that should, instead, be learned and practiced—puja, in fact, often looks very much like worship, sometimes involving a great outpouring of emotion and adoration, even amounting to what seems like worship of a god. Buddhists frequently make offerings to images, typically fruit but sometimes money, as a gesture of respect, as an act of renunciation, or, in some cases, in the hopes of some favor in return, perhaps happiness or prosperity. Such acts of devotion are often performed in temples but can also be performed in small shrines in the home.

Puja typically involves not only the making of an offering but also meditation and prayer. Frequently a Buddhist layperson will approach an image, make his or her offering, and then kneel in prayer or meditation. These meditations sometimes involve a mental reconstruction of the Buddha's auspicious qualities—perhaps his compassion or his profound wisdom—with the hope of cultivating those qualities oneself. The meditation might be directed to the well-being of others, one's family members in particular, or one's ancestors. These are often individual acts of quiet and contemplative devotion, but in some settings they can also be congregational as well. Likewise, such devotion sometimes is quite physical in nature. In Tibet, for instance, Buddhist laypeople will frequently circumambulate a stupa, turning smaller prayer wheels as they do (symbolically turning the Wheel of the Dharma), a ritual act that is also sometimes performed by making a series of bodily prostrations. Increasingly, laypeople are also becoming involved in formal meditation, traditionally the province of monks only. In Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), and Sri Lanka, for instance, lay meditation classes are held at monasteries and temples.

Buddhist weddings are a relatively recent phenomenon, largely developed as a result of colonial exclusion of those who were not formally married. In some instances monks officiate at such events, although this is unusual. Funerals, though, quite often involve monks, who recite sacred texts, offer prayers for the dead intended to ensure their speedy and auspicious rebirth, and in some cases chant special "protective" verses intended to ward off potentially evil spirits associated with incomplete karmic transference from one birth to the next.

The first places of pilgrimage in Buddhism were associated with the Buddha's relics. The Buddha said his followers could go to these places and feel great joy and tranquility. Furthermore, the Buddha explicitly stated that even those who died on the journey to such a place would experience the same mental and physical benefits as those who reached their destination. As Buddhism spread throughout India and the rest of Asia, new pilgrimage places emerged, some directly associated with the Buddha's relics or with important events in his life and others more local in significance. The physical act of pilgrimage became, by extension, analogous to the inner journey that one "on the path" was to make. As such, pilgrimage is a kind of renunciation in microcosm, a departure from—and symbolic renunciation of—the mundane and domestic world in pursuit of a higher religious goal. Pilgrims, like monks, frequently dress in simple, distinctive clothes; they take vows of chastity and abstain from any karmically harmful acts; they meditate and study. Certainly the pilgrim, unlike the monk, eventually returns to normal life, but the ideal is that he or she returns changed by the experience and shares this change with those who did not make the journey.


The most basic rite of passage in Buddhism is the taking of the Three Refuges (also known as the Triple Gem): "I go for refuge to the Buddha, I go for refuge to the dharma, I go for refuge to the sangha." This is a ritual recitation of the intent to live as a Buddhist, to embody the dharma, and to seek guidance from the dharma, and, as such, it is a kind of minimal condition for becoming a Buddhist. For the monk, this simple ritual is the first step in a far more elaborate rite of passage: formal ordination into the sangha. The first step in this elaborate process is severing one's ties with domestic life, a ritual renunciation that is usually called "leaving home for homelessness." It is followed by a series of vows, particularly the vow to follow the code of monastic discipline, the Vinaya. For lay Buddhists other significant rites of passage are birth; marriage, which in many Buddhist countries is frequently marked by the taking of specifically Buddhist vows; and death, which marks not only the end of this life but the transition to the next rebirth.


The Buddha stressed several key issues with regard to membership within the Buddhist tradition, among these the following two: first, Buddhism was open to anyone, regardless of social status or gender (this would later become an issue within the sangha, however, as women were excluded in at least some Buddhist schools); and second, that becoming a Buddhist was an entirely self-motivated act. In a sense the Buddha and his early followers did engage in missionizing activities, but they did so not so much to gain converts to their new religion as to share the dharma out of compassion, out of an attempt to alleviate the suffering (duhkha; Pali, dukkha) that, according to the Buddha, characterizes life. The first formal Buddhist mission was initiated by Ashoka (third century b.c.e.), who sent his son, Mahinda, to Sri Lanka to establish a lineage of monks in that country.

Temporary Ordination

An important way for the sangha (community of monks) and the laity to interact in many Theravada countries—such as Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, and Sri Lanka—is through the practice of temporary ordination, a relatively recent innovation. Men of varying ages are ordained as monks temporarily, for anywhere from a few days to several weeks. They undergo the same initiation process that a novice monk would undergo: the departure from home life, the shaving of the head, the donning of the monk's robes, and the taking of the ritual recitation known as the Three Refuges (also known as the Triple Gem). These temporary monks live as all monks live, observing the rules of monastic discipline (the Vinaya), studying the dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), and meditating.

The benefits of temporary ordination are not only that it spreads the dharma directly, affording the temporary monk to gain a firsthand understanding of what it means to live according to the Buddha's teaching, but that it is also an effective means to involve laypeople in the workings of the monastery without compromising the monk's asceticism. The temporary monk returns to his domestic life and spreads what he has learned to his family and friends, and typically he and his family maintain a closer relationship with the monks and the monastery. In Sri Lanka, for instance, where temporary ordination is a new phenomenon, some prominent monks have gone so far as to say publicly that this practice will save the religion and stop the moral decay of the young.

Buddhists have never been particularly zealous in spreading their religion. Rather, Buddhist ideals have historically been imported and incorporated into indigenous practices, such as the integration of Buddhism with Taoism and Confucianism in China or the integration of Buddhism and the indigenous Bon tradition in Tibet. This has meant, in practice, that Buddhism has typically grown and spread through would-be converts coming to the religion rather than the religion actively seeking them out. One important way Buddhism has grown in the modern era is through immigration of Asians to Europe and North America, particularly since the end of World War II. These immigrants gradually set up temples in their adopted countries, and frequently curious non-Asians were drawn in. Furthermore, because temples were often begun by lay Buddhists, new and expanded roles for the laity emerged.

In Asia, also, many popular new movements have emerged during this same period. The lay movement Soka Gakkai International, which began in Japan but has spread throughout the world, adopts the teachings of the thirteenth-century Zen teacher Nichiren and focuses on a kind of practical self-transformation through chanting. In Sri Lanka the Sarvodaya movement has expanded Buddhist membership by focusing on practical, village-oriented development projects with a decidedly Buddhist orientation. In Thailand the Dhammakaya movement, founded by a laywoman, has become enormously popular. And in India there has been a resurgence of Buddhism among the untouchable population since the public conversion of the first president of India, A.K. Ambedkar, in 1956 (there are now some 6 million Ambedkar, or Dalit, Buddhists in India).


Because of its emphasis on self-effort and its recognition that people learn and progress at different rates, Buddhism has always been a profoundly tolerant religious tradition, tending to view other religions not so much as competitors but as different versions of the same basic quest for truth and salvation. Indeed, the Buddha never proposed that his was the only path but rather that it was the most efficacious; a person following some other religious tradition, an early text states, would be like a man slowly walking to his destination, whereas the Buddhist was like a man riding a cart to that same place. Certainly the walker and the rider would both, in time, reach their destinations, but the latter would arrive much sooner.

This is not to say that Buddhists have not engaged in polemical attacks against other religions. Certainly they have, such as the scholarly attacks on Hinduism that were common in Buddhism in the medieval Indian milieu. This is also not to say that Buddhists have not clashed, sometimes violently, with members of other religions. In modern Sri Lanka, for instance, Buddhists and Hindus have been fighting against each other in a civil war that has taken the lives of tens of thousands; however, this and other such clashes tend not to be wars about differing religious ideologies so much as they are about ethnic and political tensions.


On the surface it would appear that Buddhism would not be a religion that lends itself to taking an active role in social issues, given that at its core is the individual search for individual salvation. It is imperative, however, to understand that the Buddha set out for his quest for enlightenment not out of a selfish quest for spiritual fulfillment but out of compassion and the burning desire to alleviate the suffering of all beings, and it is this fundamental emphasis on compassion that informs and orients the Buddhist sense of social justice.

In the latter part of the twentieth century there emerged across the Buddhist world a phenomenon that scholars and Buddhists alike have labeled engaged Buddhism, a broad and varied movement that addresses issues such as poverty, education, and human rights.

The number of Buddhist organizations addressing economic issues throughout the world has grown tremendously since the middle of the twentieth century. These organizations participate in a staggering range of activities, from those that operate purely on the village level to those with a decidedly international scope. One of the most interesting modern Buddhist groups to deal with the issue of poverty is Sarvodaya, which began in 1958 with the purpose of addressing social, economic, and environmental issues in Sri Lanka. In 1987 Sarvodaya started Sarvodaya Economic Enterprises Development Services (SEEDS), intended explicitly to address poverty and economic issues. The goals of SEEDS are nothing short of the eradication of poverty, accomplished through developing, at the local and village level, means for sustainable livelihood. SEEDS provides vocational training, helps local groups develop projects related to agriculture and marketing, assists in technical issues, and provides low-interest loans to help start sustainable projects. Although this is a movement specific to Sri Lanka, countless other such movements have emerged in South, Southeast, and East Asia. For instance, the Metta Dana Project, based in central Myanmar (Burma), is a similar grassroots organization that focuses not only on poverty but also on health care and educational issues. Likewise, the Tzu Chi Foundation, in Taiwan, in addition to addressing a large range of social issues, provides a range of charities and economic relief, including home repair, medical aid, food distribution, and funeral assistance. In India the Karuna Trust, formed in 1980 by a group of Western Buddhists, focuses specifically on India's approximately 6 million formerly untouchable Buddhist converts, sometimes called Dalit Buddhists, providing disaster relief and support for a wide range of economic development projects.

Buddhist education has traditionally been in the monasteries—this is where monks receive their formal education and where laypeople traditionally go to hear dharma talks. One of the first people to promote a more formal educational system was Henry Steele Olcott, who, along with the Sri Lankan reformer Anagarika Dharmapala, established a network of distinctly Buddhist schools in Sri Lanka in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Since then Buddhist schools have been founded, with varying degrees of success, throughout Asia. One particularly important aspect of this has been the education of women. As new female monastic movements have emerged across Asia, such groups have focused specifically on the education of girls and young women. In Taiwan the Fo Kuang Shan movement has been active in Buddhist education, establishing a network of Buddhist schools from primary schools to college.

Buddhist groups specifically concerned with human rights began to draw widespread recognition during the Vietnam War, when Buddhist monks took an active role in protesting not only American military involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia but also the activities of the communist governments in those countries. One particularly prominent figure in this movement has been Thich Nhat Hanh, an outspoken monk who left Vietnam in 1966 and took up residence in France, where he has continued to be an important voice. He is the founder of Plum Village, a Buddhist retreat that promotes a cross-cultural, interdenominational appreciation of human life.

Buddhist human rights activists have been particularly active in Myanmar (Burma) and Tibet. The Free Burma Coalition (FBC), for instance, is an umbrella organization that was founded in 1995 by a group of Burmese and American graduate students to address human rights violations by Myanmar's military. FBC is associated with the National League for Democracy, a group that has been led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. FBC is a large network, particularly active on the Internet, of activists, dissident academics in exile, labor groups, and refugees, all working to ensure the protection of human rights in Myanmar's highly volatile political climate. Tibet has been an even more consistent focus of human rights groups since the 1950s and the exile of the Dalai Lama to India. In part motivated by the Dalai Lama himself, numerous groups in the West and in Tibet have worked to monitor and protect human rights in that country by organizing protests, mounting letter-writing campaigns, appealing to foreign governments for political and economic pressure, and so on. Prominent Buddhist organizations such as Soka Gakkai and Fo Kuang Shan in East Asia are also actively engaged in human rights issues, as are countless distinctly Buddhist human rights organizations and movements throughout Asia and the West.


Buddhist texts are essentially silent on the subject of marriage. Although the Buddha did not lay out rules on married life, he did offer basic guidelines for how to live happily within marriage. Married people should be honest and faithful and avoid adultery—indeed, one of the ethical rules in the pancha sila is the prohibition against sexual misconduct, which is frequently taken in practice to be the endorsement of marital fidelity and monogamy. In the Parabhava Sutta, for instance, a significant cause of human error and negative karma is involvement with multiple women. As for polygamy, the Buddhist laity are advised to limit themselves to one wife.

In traditionally Buddhist countries marriage is a completely secular affair taking various forms: monogamy or polygamy. In many South and Southeast Asian countries, marriage is traditionally arranged, based on, among other elements, social standing, education, and compatibility of horoscopes. Although monks may be invited to a marriage ceremony, their role is not to conduct the marriage itself but, rather, to bless the newly married couple as they set out on a new stage of their lives. Ceremonies vary considerably from country to country and school to school. In the Theravada, for instance, the couple might recite a text such as the Sigalovada Sutta, which deals generally with marital duties, and they might also recite a devotional text such as the Mangala Sutta.

Likewise, Buddhist views about the family tend to be general in nature, based in principle on the interconnectedness of karma. Because the traditional Buddhist family is a large and extended group that includes aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and so on, one has a duty to honor and respect both one's immediate family and one's extended family. In a famous statement the Buddha remarked that one should be kind and compassionate to all living beings because there can be found no being who was not once in some former life one's brother, sister, mother, or father. In many Buddhist countries, particularly those of East Asia, one of the most important familial duties is toward one's dead ancestors, who are thought to exist in a special realm and who depend on the living to continue to honor and care for them.


In general, because Buddhism has no single, centralized religious authority, and because it philosophically and practically places the emphasis on individual effort, there is no single stance on any controversial issue. Buddhists, if it is possible to generalize, tend to believe that most issues are decided by the individual or by the basic ethical guidelines that were first laid out by the Buddha himself and then subsequently elaborated on in the Vinaya Pitaka. One central tenet that informs Buddhist's understanding of such controversial issues as capital punishment and abortion is the prohibition against harming any living beings. Issues such as divorce, which can frequently be governed by religious rules and authorities, are generally left up to the individuals involved.

There is no foundation in Buddhism for Buddhists to oppose birth control. Generally it is held that Buddhist laypeople may use any traditional or modern measures to prevent conception, since birth control simply prevents a potential being from coming into existence and does not harm any sentient beings.

Abortion presents a more difficult, more ambiguous issue. The precept that prohibits killing (and harming) beings stipulates that killing is governed by five conditions, the first of which is the presence of a living being, and so it very much depends on one's stance on this issue, which is as contested in Buddhism as it is in the West.

One would think that Buddhism would have been entirely open to women, because it is purely one's own effort, one's own ability to understand the nature of the dharma and to realize the truth of impermanence, that determines where one is on the path. In other words, we might expect to find inclusiveness in Buddhism, and to a certain extent we do. One's gender should not, in theory, hinder one's spiritual attainment any more than one's caste would. In practice, however, the status of women has been anything but clear in Buddhism.

In the early textual tradition the vision of women is often quite negative, and women become a kind of hindrance and a distraction, the embodiment of illusion and the objects of lustful grasping. There are, to be sure, also positive images of women—as mothers, as devoted wives, as model givers. This last role is particularly important, for among the laity it is the women of the community who are often most actively involved in supporting the sangha and, as a result, in receiving the dharma.

The issue of female monks has been a consistently contested one, since the Buddha himself reluctantly allowed his aunt Mahapajapati to join the sangha but with the stipulation that female monks (Pali, bhikkhuni) would be subject to additional rules. In practice, though, the lineage of female monastics died out fairly early in the Theravada, and it has only been in the modern era, often as the result of the efforts of Western female Buddhists, that the female sangha has been revived, and even in these cases women monks are sometimes viewed with suspicion and even open hostility. Nonetheless, in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, women monastics have been an important voice and an important symbolic presence. In the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools, as well as in Zen, female monks, although certainly not the norm, are more common than in the Theravada. China and Korea are the only East Asian countries to allow for full female ordination. Beginning in the early 1980s a move for full female ordination began in Tibetan Buddhism, with the first all-female monastery being built in Ladakh, India, home of many Tibetan Buddhists since the Dalai Lama's exile in 1959. Similarly, Thai Buddhist woman began to organize a female monastic order in the 1970s. In Sri Lanka a German woman, Ayya Khema, began a female monastic order in the 1980s, one that has continued to grow. In 2000 the International Association of Buddhist Women was founded. This umbrella organization brings together the various female sanghas and provides a vital nexus of unity and activism.


Monks are prohibited from listening to music and from dancing; such things represent, from a monastic point of view, a lack of control of the senses, a kind of indulgence and distraction that is not conducive to mindfulness. Nonetheless, monks have often chanted Buddhist texts, and the effect can be almost musical. In contemporary Sri Lanka a special class of monks is trained in such chanting, and recordings of their recitations are frequently sold as popular music, although the monks themselves have been careful to stipulate that this is simply a more effective means of transmitting the dharma and not intended for aesthetic enjoyment. Elsewhere, in Tibet and East Asia, different forms of chanting, sometimes with musical accompaniment, are common and popular. From the lay perspective, music can sometimes be a significant form of offering, or dana, and an expression of faith in, and attention to, the Buddha's teachings. Furthermore, at many Buddhist temples drumming, flute and horn playing, and lyrical chanting all accompany devotional and ritual activity.

Some of the earliest examples of Buddhist art and architecture are the great stupas of Bharhut, Sanchi, and Amaravati; not only did these stupas contain relics of the Buddha, but they were embellished with spectacular stone reliefs. More than decoration or ornamentation, these sculptures were intended to visually convey the Buddha's teachings, to instruct laypeople and monks alike in the dharma. Key events in the Buddha's life are depicted—for example, his defeat of the evil Mara or the simple gift of sustenance offered by the laywoman Sujata that enabled Siddhartha to attain enlightenment.

The very nature of a sculptural image in Buddhism is complex. Although there has been some debate about the matter, it is clear that Buddhists began to depict the Buddha early on, perhaps even before he died. The Buddha himself said that images of him would be permissible only if they were not worshiped. Rather, such images should provide an opportunity for reflection and meditation. Virtually all Buddhist temples and monasteries throughout the world contain sculptural images of the Buddha and the bodhisattvas. These images range from simple stone sculptures of the Buddha to incredibly intricate depictions of a bodhisattva like Kanon in Japan, with his thousand heads and elaborate hand gestures and iconographic details. And although these images function in the ritual context of the temple and monastery, they also serve an artistic and aesthetic purpose.

In Tibet particularly, an important artistic form is the mandala, an aid in meditation that symbolically depicts a world populated by bodhisattvas and other beings. Mandalas, which are often painted on cloth scrolls but can also be depicted in three-dimensional media or made out of sand (to emphasize the impermanence of all things), are intended to lead the meditator visually from the outer world of appearance and illusion to the inner core of being, the very nature of the self and emptiness. In East Asia, Zen has profound influence on the arts, and there is a long, rich tradition of Buddhist painting. Painting is seen as a form of meditation, a method of attaining insight into the immediacy of the moment and the transiency of the natural world. Other important artistic Buddhist endeavors in East Asia include archery, gardening, and the tea ceremony, all of which combine ritual action, meditation, and artistic expression.

Most of the Buddhist architecture of India is long gone, although Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment, continues to be a vital center of activity not only for India's Buddhists but for Buddhist pilgrims throughout the world. Some of the most spectacular examples of Buddhist architecture can be found in Southeast Asia. At Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, for instance, Buddhist kings constructed an enormous monument that re-creates the cosmic hierarchy of divine and semi-divine beings in order to symbolically convey the concept that their earthly rule paralleled a celestial one; the ruins of similar monuments can be found in Pagan, Myanmar (Burma), in the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka, and in several ancient cities in Thailand. One of the most magnificent examples of Buddhist art and architecture is the temple complex at Borobudur, on the island of Java in Indonesia, an almost unfathomably elaborate and extensive architectural marvel.

Jacob Kinnard

See Also Vol. 1: Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism


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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


views updated May 29 2018


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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Budhism is a religion based on the teachings of its founder, Siddhartha Gautama (563–483 bce). The Buddha, or the "enlightened one" as he came to be known, taught that a person could escape the pain and suffering of life by eliminating desire. The way of living he established is also considered to be a philosophy, or a set of ideas through which to gain a better understanding of values and reality.

The Buddha searched for six years to learn the meaning of life, and he gained many followers in his lifetime. Since his death, dozens of different sects, or subgroups, have formed in Buddhism. The religion has spread from its native India to the rest of the Far East and to the West (the countries in Europe and the Americas). The great majority of its followers are in Asia. Estimates suggest that there are about 350 million Buddhists worldwide, or about six percent of the world's total population. It is the fourth-largest world religion, behind Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. Countries with large Buddhist populations include Thailand with 95 percent, Cambodia at 90 percent, Tibet with 65 percent, and Japan with 50 percent. Eight percent of China's population follows Buddhism, as does 0.7 percent of India's population. Buddhist followers in the United States comprise 1 percent of the population and 0.5 percent in the United Kingdom. Less than one percent of populations in Africa follow Buddhism.

History and development

The early history of Buddhism is bound up with the life of its founder, Siddhartha Gautama. That Siddhartha Gautama was an actual historical figure is generally accepted. He was born into a noble family at Lumbini, a site in the southwest of modern Nepal. His mother's name was Maha Maya. His father, Suddhodana, ruled over a small village and was part of the ruling Sakya clan. Most of what is known of the Buddha comes from later accounts rather than contemporary historical records made during his lifetime. In 1996, however, a team of archaeologists (scientists who study the remains of past human civilization) discovered a marker honoring the Buddha's birthplace set the by the emperor Ashoka in 250 bce.

Siddhartha journeys to enlightenment

According to Buddhist legend, the Buddha's birth was no ordinary event: The story, which is similar to the story of the conception of Jesus Christ (c. 6 bce–c. 30 ce) in Christian tradition, says that Siddhartha was conceived in a dream involving a white elephant carrying a lotus flower. This dream was interpreted as meaning that Maha's son would become either a great ruler or a spiritual leader. The child was named Siddhartha, meaning "one who has realized his goal." This name was combined with the family name, Gautama, and the clan name, Sakyamuni.

A week after his birth, Siddhartha's mother died. He was raised by his aunt and heavily protected by his father, who promised himself that his son would neither witness nor experience further unhappiness in his life. Thus, Siddhartha grew up on the family estate, well educated and prosperous but ignorant of the usual sorrows of life. At age seventeen, he married his cousin Yashodora, and they had a son, Rahula.

Siddhartha, however, grew restless with his comfortable life. Despite his father's efforts at shielding him from the realities of the world, he experienced four events that helped him understand the truth about the way the world works. Traveling through the town, he saw an old man, then a sick man, and then a dead man. These sights pained him and let him know that life was hard and full of suffering. His fourth encounter was with a beggar monk, a spiritual person who had given up all material goods. This man told Siddhartha that the way to deal with such sorrow and suffering is to become a beggar monk himself. So great was Siddhartha's sadness and feeling of emptiness that he decided to leave his family and wealth behind and search for enlightenment, or understanding the true nature of life and how to end its suffering.

For the next six years Siddhartha sought out the teachings of the Brahmans, the priesthood of Hinduism. He began to live the life of a monk, sleeping on the ground at night. He practiced meditation (seeking spiritual truth inside oneself through quiet and stillness) and fasted, going without food for long periods of time. None of this, however, helped him escape his sorrow. Finally, he decided that this extreme self-denial and discomfort might not be the way to enlightenment just as his earlier life of luxury had not been. He instead developed the "middle way," avoiding extremes. By rejecting both extreme pleasure and extreme pain, he believed he might find true enlightenment.

One day Siddhartha seated himself under a banyan, or fig, tree. It is now called a Bo tree, short for bodhi (wisdom and enlightenment), for it was there that Siddhartha, after six years of searching, finally found enlightenment. According to legend, Siddhartha sat under the tree for seven weeks. Although he was tempted by the devil Mara he overcame the temptations and arrived at complete enlightenment. After this, he was called the Buddha, the Enlightened One. Sometimes he is also referred to as Sakyamuni Buddha, referring to his clan name, to differentiate him from earlier and later buddhas, or great spiritual teachers.


A person who has attained enlightenment but, rather than entering a state of nirvana, chooses to stay behind to help others reach enlightenment.
A spiritual leader who has reached full enlightenment.
The Buddha:
The title of Siddhartha Gautama after he attained enlightenment.
The collection of moral laws that govern the universe.
Eightfold Path:
The path of the Buddha's teachings that can lead to the end of suffering.
The state of realization and understanding of life, a feeling of unity with all things.
Four Noble Truths:
The foundations of the Buddhist religion: that all life is suffering, that desire causes suffering, that suffering can end, and that ending suffering happens by following the path of the Buddha's teachings.
The result of good or bad actions in this lifetime that can affect this or later lifetimes.
Body of worshippers, as distinct from clergy such as monks and nuns.
A place where religious people such as monks live, away from the world and following strict religious guidelines.
The end of suffering, beyond time and space; the goal of all Buddhists.
Originally a mound marking the spot where the Buddha's ashes were buried. Rock pillars carved with the words of the Buddha are also sometimes called stupas.
The Buddhist sacred texts accepted by all branches of Buddhism.

The Buddha's teachings

The Buddha came to understand that all of life is suffering and that suffering was caused by desire. By ending desire, one could end the cycle of suffering and achieve nirvana, the end of suffering. The way to achieve this was not through extreme denial or extreme indulgence, but by following a path of moderation, the middle way.

The Buddha decided to help others reach such awakening. He set out into the world of northern India to preach his message of the middle way. So powerful was his message of inner peace and harmony that in eight months the Buddha had won over twenty thousand followers. For the next forty-five years the Buddha and his growing group of disciples, or close followers, spread his message that suffering in life could be eliminated by following his teachings.

The core beliefs of Buddhism were developed by the Buddha largely in reaction to the dominant religious culture of the day, Hinduism, and to changing conditions in India. During the Buddha's lifetime old tribal societies were breaking up and being replaced by new urban civilizations. The Buddha was one of several new thinkers who responded to this upheaval with a new approach. He preached a religion without authority, without ritual or examination of the meaning of life, without tradition, without a creator-god, and without mystery and spiritualism. Instead, he set out a step-by-step approach to leaving one's feelings of sorrow and emptiness behind, called the Eightfold Path.

Buddhism formalizes as a religion

After the Buddha's death his followers began to establish a formal structure for Buddhism. The Buddha did not leave any formal records of his teachings or appoint levels of leadership to his followers. As a result, there was the possibility that those who took up the Buddha's teachings after his death could reinterpret his message. Soon after his death in the fifth century bce, a council was called to establish a commonly agreed-upon version of the Buddha's teachings and his rules for monks. Those teachings and rules voted on by the monks became the basis for the central Buddhist text, the Pali Canon, which was originally written on palm leaves.

Differences soon emerged, however, between a group of more traditional believers, called the School of the Elders, and another, less traditional group. The School of the Elders focused on the personal pursuit of enlightenment. The other group believed in helping everyone to achieve enlightenment. This central difference ultimately led to a split between Buddhist followers. The more traditional group became known as Theravada, or "way of the elders." The other group became the Mahayana, or "majority." These divisions have remained throughout the history of Buddhism.

About Buddhism

  • Belief. Buddhists believe that suffering is the central human condition and is caused by desire. Nirvana, or the end of suffering, can be reached by following a right course of action and thought in life. Buddhism's founder, Siddhartha Gautama (also known as the Buddha), describes these in his teachings.
  • Followers. Buddhism is the fourth largest world religion with 3.5 million believers worldwide, most of whom are in Asia.
  • Name of God. The Buddha did not suggest that a god was responsible for the creation of the universe or of humanity. In later years, schools such as Mahayana Buddhism elevated the Buddha to a godlike status. In some instances, the word "buddha" is used in a similar way to "god."
  • Symbols. The Buddhist International Flag represents Buddhist ideals of compassion, the middle path, blessings, purity and liberation, and wisdom. Other major symbols include the dharmachakra, or dharma wheel, and the bodhi tree.
  • Worship. Buddhists worship at temples, stupas (rock pillars), Buddhist centers, or in their own homes at small shrines. They may worship in a group or on their own.
  • Dress. Buddhist laypeople do not wear special clothing, though shoes are normally removed in temples and teaching halls. Yellow robes are standard attire for monks. A heavier deep-red robe is also worn by modern monks, especially in Tibet.
  • Texts. The primary text for all schools of Buddhism is the Pali Canon, also called the Tipitaka. It contains rules for monastic living, teachings of the Buddha, and explanations of philosophical questions. Another popular Buddhist text is the Dhammapada, a collection of the Buddha's sayings.
  • Sites. Lumbini, Nepal, is the birthplace of the Buddha and is one of the four most important pilgrimage sites for Buddhists. Other sites include Bodh Gaya, the place where he attained enlightenment; Sarnath, where he delivered his first sermon on how to avoid suffering; and Kusinagara, where he escaped from this life into nirvana.
  • Observances. Wesak is the most important holy day for Buddhists. Held on the full moon in May, it celebrates the Buddha's birth.
  • Phrases. Om mani padme hum is a mantra, or chant, prevalent in Buddhism, meaning "Hail the jewel in the lotus." It refers to the symbology surrounding the Buddha's miraculous birth.

Spreads throughout Asia

The spread of Buddhism was enhanced by the work of the emperor Ashoka (also called Asoka) of Maurya, in present-day India, who ruled from c. 273 to c. 232 bce. Ashoka converted to Buddhism after a bloody struggle to gain power. Thereafter, this powerful emperor decided to devote himself to peace. He had thousands of rock pillars, or stupas, erected with the words of the Buddha inscribed on them, calling for respect for all life. Ashoka organized missionaries, people who dedicated themselves to preaching the truths of their religion to others, to spread Buddhism beyond the borders of India. Some of these missionaries reached as far as Egypt and Greece.

Ashoka's son is thought to have brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka, and there the Theravada tradition has remained dominant ever since. The religion continued to spread throughout Asia, establishing strong footholds in China, Cambodia, Thailand, and Korea. China was first exposed to Buddhism in about 150 ce by missionaries from India. By the sixth century the religion had already gained two million followers. Buddhism spread to Japan in the thirteenth century ce, where it split into two major schools, Zen and Nichiren.

At about this time Buddhism also spread to Tibet, a region in the Himalayan mountains that is now part of China. It came to Tibet with Guru Rinpoche, the Indian master of what is known as Vajrayana, or Tantra, Buddhism. This is a form of Mahayana Buddhism that employs techniques, including meditation and chanting and other methods, to speed up the way to enlightenment. By the sixteenth century Vajrayana had become the dominant branch of Buddhism in Tibet under its leader, the Dalai Lama. Until the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1949, the dalai lama was both the spiritual and political leader of Tibet. The fourteenth dalai lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was born in 1935 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

Meanwhile, in India, the religion gradually declined in popularity, with the majority of Indians continuing to follow Hindu traditions. After the death of Ashoka, a new dynasty called the Sunga (185–73 bce) came to power. The Sunga dynasty persecuted (mistreated) Buddhists, killing monks and destroying their monasteries. Despite this treatment, the religion flourished and reached its greatest numbers in India by the fifth century ce. Afterward, however, Buddhism declined in the Buddha's native land. Following the Muslim invasion of India in the twelfth century, Buddhism in India virtually came to an end. By the late twentieth century less than 1 percent of Indians were Buddhists.

Buddhism becomes known in the West

It was not until the nineteenth century that Buddhism became well-known and understood in the West. Philosophers (people who study questions of moral behavior and the meaning of life), such as the German Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), helped to bring the religion before the public. Schopenhauer's writings popularized the Buddhist idea of ending desire as a cure for emotional pain. Buddhism took root in small communities in England and also spread to the United States, where the arrival of Chinese laborers helped to popularize the religion. American writers such as Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), and the New England transcendentalists, who believed in the unity of all nature, were also influenced by Buddhist principles. Another milestone in popularizing Buddhism was the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Here speakers such as Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933) and D. T. Suzuki (1870–1966) helped introduce Theravada and Zen to the United States.

Following World War II (1939–45; a war in which the United Kingdom, United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan) interest in Buddhism was renewed in the West. Zen Buddhism became particularly popular in the United States during the 1950s. As U.S. servicemen returned from war in Japan and in Korea, they sometimes brought with them an interest in Asian culture, including Zen. They shared these interests once back home, contributing to the spread of Buddhism in the United States. The writings of scholar D. T. Suzuki and the work of philosopher Alan Watts (1915–1973) on Zen Buddhism influenced a new generation of people seeking answers to questions about life.

Tibetan Buddhism has become another very popular form of Buddhism in the United States in the twenty-first century. The spread of Buddhism has also been enhanced in the United States by waves of immigration from Buddhist countries in Asia. Despite its growing popularity, only 1 percent of the U.S. population is Buddhist. European nations also have a small presence of Buddhists, but their presence continued to increase slowly in the early twenty-first century.

Sects and schisms

Buddhism had already split into two main branches, or schools, by the first century bce. In the early twenty-first century there exist three main types of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Theravada means "Doctrine of the Elders," and it bases its practices and beliefs on the original teachings of the Buddha as gathered in the Pali Canon. It is sometimes referred to as the Hinayana branch, or Small Vehicle, but this is not considered to be a polite term for Theravada. Theravada has a strict interpretation of the Buddha's teachings and places great emphasis on the final step in the Eightfold Path, right concentration. Meditation and contemplation (deep thought) are considered to be the best ways to attain enlightenment. Theravada is most popular in southeast Asia and is sometimes referred to as Southern Buddhism. Theravada is followed by 38 percent of Buddhists, or 124 million people, in the early twenty-first century. It is the main religious tradition in Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. It is also found in parts of China, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

The word Mahayana means "Greater Vehicle." Mahayana Buddhism is sometimes called Northern Buddhism because it is most popular in parts of Asia north of India, such as China and Japan. Mahayana Buddhists are less strict in their interpretation of the Buddha's teachings. They also focus on teachings given later in the Buddha's life. While Theravada Buddhists give reverence, or great respect, only to the Buddha, Mahayana Buddhists recognize may bodbisattvas, or enlightened beings who are like gods and help others on the path. Achieving enlightenment and nirvana, however, may take several lifetimes.

At the time of Mahayana's development, people were accustomed to worshipping many gods. It was difficult for them to accept a belief system that did not have this feature. The Mahayana school responded to this need by saying that the Buddha was both a man and a godlike being, who used his enlightenment to help others. Many other deities (gods) and bodhisattvas populate the Mahayana faith, including Kuan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion and mercy, and Wenshu, the bodhisattva of wisdom. Mahayana Buddhism is most commonly practiced in Nepal, Vietnam, Korea, China, Japan, Tibet, and Mongolia. It is followed by 56 percent of all Buddhists, or about 185 million people.

The third major school of Buddhism, Vajrayana, or "Diamond Vehicle," is a sub-school of Mahayana. It is sometimes called the Tantric branch. Vajrayana developed during the fifth and sixth centuries ce. Its practices are intended to bring a person to quick enlightenment. Its teachings are based on texts called Tantras, which describe meditation and techniques for Buddhist practice. Some of these techniques include yoga (a physical and spiritual practice that can include holding difficult physical positions for some time), chanting or repetition of mantras, and the creation of mandalas (circular diagrams with spiritual significance, usually created with colored sand). Tibetan Buddhism is the most well-known form of Vajrayana Buddhism. Vajrayana Buddhism is followed by 6 percent of Buddhists.

Smaller schools

Within these three main schools, there are many sub-schools. Pure Land Buddhism developed in China. It tells of a fabled heavenly land in the West that is a midway point on the way to nirvana. This domain is ruled by the spirit of the popular buddha Amitabha. Those believers who do not have the ability to reach nirvana can call upon Amitabha at their death to be reborn in the Pure Land. Teachers there will help them to reach the ultimate goal of nirvana.

China also developed a meditation-centered branch of Buddhism called Ch'an. Ch'an spread in the twelfth century to Japan, where it changed into Zen Buddhism. Zen teaches that the way to become a buddha (spiritual leader) is through self-knowledge, and the way to achieve self-knowledge is through meditation. Although other schools of Buddhism use meditation, the practice is central to Zen Buddhism. Zen does not rely on sacred writings or the followings of a specific teacher, as is common in many other religions. Instead, Zen often uses koans, or question-and-answer sessions between masters and students. The questions asked in the koans often seem illogical and require great self-examination to understand. They are thought to help the person gain greater self-knowledge and achieve enlightenment, or satori.

Indian Protestantism

Religious writer Huston Smith argues that Siddhartha Gautama was something of a "rebel saint." Writing in The Religions of Man (1965), Smith noted that Buddhism "must be seen against the background of the Hinduism out of which it grew." Smith went on to note that Buddhism was largely "a reaction against Hindu perversions—an Indian Protestantism." By "perversions," Smith was referring to the elaborate ceremonies and power of the priests, or Brahmins, in the Hinduism of Siddhartha's time. The Buddha felt that these developments had sent Hinduism in the wrong direction, more interested in show and ceremony than in helping the common people.

Just like the Protestant revolt against Catholicism, Buddhism sought to cut through what it saw as hypocrisy, or falseness, in the older religion. Unlike Hinduism, with its Brahman priestly class, the Buddha preached a religion free of authority and free from a chain of command for leadership and power. Each individual, he said, should do his or her own religious seeking and not trust the word of some priest or preacher. This is illustrated in the Buddha's words from the Dhammapada: "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense."

The Buddha also encouraged religious beliefs that did not focus on ritual and tradition. Hinduism had a large number of rites and prayers to the gods. The Buddha felt that such rituals served as worldly distractions that kept a person from enlightenment. Soothsayers and prophets, those who claimed to see into the future, played a large part in Hinduism. The Buddha thought such methods were only for those looking for easy answers to life's difficult questions. Instead, the Buddha offered a religion very different from the Hinduism of the day. Buddha focused on the condition of the human mind rather than on metaphysics. He used experience and reason to arrive at his principles of living, and did not rely on ceremony or the words of ancient priests. He created a religion of social equals, rejecting the caste, or class, system in India.

Basic beliefs

Buddhism concentrates on the concept of dukkha, or suffering, and how to avoid it. In the Buddha's first lesson, which came to be called "Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Law or Truth," he announced the Four Noble Truths. These provide the foundation for all of Buddhism. The First Noble Truth is that existence contains suffering, physical, emotional, and spiritual. The Second Noble Truth explains that suffering exists because of tanha, or desire. All desire in life leads to suffering. The Third Noble Truth then declares that to be free of suffering one must first be freed from desire. The Fourth Noble Truth states that release from desire and suffering can be achieved by following the Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path consists of eight steps:

right understanding;

right thought;

right speech;

right action;

right livelihood;

right effort;

right mindfulness; and

right concentration.

Each step on the Eightfold Path can be followed by anyone willing to dedicate him or herself to it. Right understanding means to begin the journey by knowing the Four Noble Truths and the Buddha's teachings. Right thought is to be dedicated to practicing Buddhism and caring for others. One practices right speech when one does not lie, speak harshly of others, or gossip. Right action consists of following what are called the Five Precepts. These are to not kill, not steal, not overindulge in activities involving the senses, not lie, and not drink alcohol to excess.

To follow right livelihood, a person should avoid working in jobs that are harmful to others, such as trading in weapons or alcohol, or in anything that shames or injures others. Right effort can be practiced by promoting positive qualities in one's self, such as improving one's knowledge of the Buddha's teachings or completing an assignment on time. Right mindfulness is when one does something with one's full attention. The final step on the Eightfold Path is right concentration, which means to focus the mind, usually through meditation.

The steps of the Eightfold Path are sometimes grouped into three categories: wisdom (including right understanding and thought), meditation (right effort, mindfulness, and concentration), and morality (right speech, action, and livelihood). Buddhists rely on their community, or sangha, to help them on their paths. A person following these steps can learn to understand completely the Buddha's teachings on suffering and impermanence and achieve enlightenment and nirvana. Nirvana is when a person stops the cycle of suffering and rebirth.

All things are related, all things change

Among other central principles of early Buddhism is the concept of the nonexistence of a soul, or anatman. The Buddha declared that separate souls for individuals that remained distinct after death do not exist. Instead, he taught that each person is part of the rest of humanity, but in the most basic way, just as one candle flame is part of the general class of fire. Related to this is the concept of emptiness, or sunyata. The Buddha explained that sunyata meant that things do not exist on their own but are part of a larger universal network or web of all things and beings. The world exists as it is because of the presence of everything in it. The Buddha also noted that there were corresponding opposites in the universe. The Buddha determined that if there was suffering, there must also be no suffering.

Another major principle of Buddhism is the idea of the impermanence of all things, anicca. By failing to understand that existence is impermanent, people suffer. For the Buddha the idea of emptiness means that there is no separate self. Rather, people are all part of the same network or fabric. In a sense, reaching nirvana means losing one's individual identity.

Buddhism's different schools

Early Buddhism was strict about maintaining the belief that there was no supreme being or god. When the Mahayana school formed, a number of deities, or gods, developed out of it. These deities, called bodhisattvas, assist Mahayana Buddhists on their paths.

Many schools of Buddhism have their own separate beliefs and practices in addition to such core principles. For example, Tibetan Buddhists believe in physical reincarnation, or the soul's rebirth into another body, of buddhas. When a lama, or leader of Tibetan monks, who is thought to be a buddha dies, the members of his monastery begin searching for the child who is that lama reborn. In Japan the Zen school of Buddhism relies heavily on meditation to achieve enlightenment. Another school of Japanese Buddhism is Nichiren Buddhism, named after a thirteenth-century Japanese monk. Nichiren believed that all that was needed for enlightenment was knowledge of the Lotus Sutra, one of the most sacred writings in Mahayana Buddhism. Nichiren taught his disciples that chanting the mantra Namu-myoho-renge-kyo (or "homage to the Lotus Sutra") would bring the seeker to enlightenment.

Although Buddhists worldwide have very different ways of attaining enlightenment, all of them share some core beliefs. These are best summarized in what is known as the Three Jewels. The jewels include a belief in the Buddha, a belief in dharma, or the universal moral law that the Buddha's teachings reveal, and a belief in the sangha, the community of fellow believers. When one wants to become a Buddhist and enter on the dharma, one recites the following prayer to an ordained monk or nun: "I go to the Buddha for refuge / I go to the Dharma for refuge / I go to the Sangha for refuge." Also central to nearly all schools of Buddhism is the practice of meditation.

Sacred writings

The oldest Buddhist sacred texts are called the Pali Canon and contain about four million words. They were written in the ancient Pali language and are also referred to as the Tipitaka, or "three baskets," because they are divided into three parts. The first part of the Pali Canon is a section on monastic law. Its 227 rules advise monks and nuns on how to handle certain situations and relationships between the sangha and the laypeople. The second Tipitaka tells the teachings of the Buddha. It details more than ten thousand sutras, or teachings, including guidance on behavior and meditation. The Dhammapada, a collection of the Buddha's sayings and lessons, is part of the second Tipitaka, and is a much-used reference for many Buddhists across all schools. The third Tipitaka contains notes on how to search for wisdom and self-understanding. This section includes songs, poetry, and stories from the Buddha's previous lives. The three sections of the Tipitaka are also called the Discipline Basket, the Discourse Basket; and the Higher Knowledge of Special Teachings Basket.

Theravada Buddhism uses the Pali Canon as its official sacred text. The teachings of the Pali Canon were determined during the First Buddhist Council, held shortly after the Buddha's death. They were passed down orally for more than one hundred years before being written down around the third century bce.

Mahayana Buddhism developed and revealed more than two thousand new passages to be added to the Buddhist collection of sacred texts. Mahayana tradition tells that many of these sutras were kept secret and only released when people were ready to hear them. They were written between 200 bce and 200 ce. The Lotus Sutra, or Suddharma-Pundarika Sutra ("White Lotus of the True Dharma"), is the most popular Mahayana text. It includes discussions on the importance of becoming a bodhisattva and of realizing one's essential Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is present in every person and allows them to grow and obtain greater understanding.

Another important Mahayana text is the Prajnaparamita, or "Perfection of Wisdom" sutras, which includes the "Heart Sutra" or "Diamond Sutra." Only a few pages long, the Diamond Sutra contains some of the basic principles of Mahayana Buddhism, including its view of emptiness, nirvana, human nature, and reality. Different Mahayana sub-schools use different sutras as their central texts. Among these writings are the Pure Land Sutra, in which the Buddha describes to his follower Ananda the heaven called Pure Land and how to be reborn there; the Mumon-kan (Gateless Gate), containing the most well-known Zen koan collections; and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which informs Vajrayana Buddhists about the spiritual opportunities available immediately after death.

A further important text for Buddhists is a book called Mulamadhyamaka-Karika, which was written around 150 ce by the Indian monk Nagarjuna. The system of thought detailed by Nagarjuna discusses an important foundation in Buddhism. It is called Madhyamaka, or "the middle way." The phrase "middle way" is often used to describe Buddhism. It illustrates the Buddha's belief, as discussed by Nagarjuna, that one must avoid extremes in order to achieve enlightenment, including extreme severity or harshness and extreme indulgence or ease.

Sacred symbols

Buddhism is rich in symbols. Many of the different schools find value in different sacred images. Some of the most prominent symbols are the dharmachakra (dharma wheel), bodhi tree, Buddhist flag, vajra (thunderbolt), and mandala. The dharmachakra is one of the most well-known Buddhist symbols. It is an eight-spoked wheel signifying the Buddha's turning of the Wheel of Truth, referring to the Buddha's first lesson after he achieved enlightenment. The eight spokes on the wheel represent each step on the Eightfold Path. The center of the wheel is a circle that contains three pieces: a hub, a spoke, and a rim. The hub stands for the Buddhist principle of discipline; the spoke, for wisdom; and the rim represents concentration.

The bodhi tree and leaves from the tree are sacred items in Buddhism. At the time of the Buddha's life, many people in India greatly respected and even worshipped trees. They were seen as a symbol of wisdom and immortality. Hindu writings describe a divine tree with roots in heaven and branches in the underworld, connecting all beings. For Buddhists, the bodhi tree is held to be sacred because the Buddha achieved enlightenment after meditating under it. Influenced by the existing culture and dominant religion of the time, Buddhist followers began to see in the bodhi tree a representation of the Buddha and his teachings.

The Buddhist flag represents all of Buddhism. Developed in 1880 by American Henry S. Olcott (1832–1907), the flag has five colors that represent five different Buddhist principles. Blue represents universal compassion; yellow is for the middle path; red is blessings; white is purity and liberation; and orange represents wisdom. The colors appear vertically and are repeated horizontally in a single column on the right margin of the flag, with blue on top and orange on the bottom. The combination of these colors represents Buddhist unity worldwide. The flag was officially accepted by the World Buddhist Congress in 1952.

The vajra, or thunderbolt, is a sacred object to followers of Vajrayana Buddhism. It is usually made of brass and symbolizes that which cannot be destroyed. It looks like a vertical staff with two prongs each reaching out diagonally from the top and bottom.

Perhaps one of the most visually familiar Buddhist symbols is the mandala. It is often used by Vajrayana Buddhists. A mandala is an elaborate image constructed to help a Buddhist concentrate in meditation. The creation of a mandala can be a form of meditation all on its own. There are many different kinds of mandalas, and each teaches different lessons depending on the different objects it contains. Every object in the mandala has significance, reminding the meditator of a particular principle or idea. Such objects include images of deities and shapes, including diamonds, bells, vajra, dharmachakra, and lotus flowers. The center of every mandala represents the Buddha. Mandalas can be made of colored sand, paper, and fabric. They take several days to create and are destroyed a short time later. This process of creation and destruction is also symbolic. It represents the impermanence of all things.


Worship in Buddhism basically takes two forms. The first is the practice of veneration, or of showing respect and admiration, for the Buddha, other buddhas, and bodhisattvas. For followers of the Theravada branch, the Buddha is the sole object of veneration, but for believers in Mahayana Buddhism, all buddhas and bodhisattvas are venerated. Such respect can be demonstrated by offering gifts to images of these revered ones in the forms of food, flowers, incense, or water in beautiful bowls. Such images might be paintings or statues at a temple or some relic or physical reminder of a buddha. For example, the temple of Kandy in Sri Lanka has a tooth of the Buddha and has become a holy place of pilgrimage for Buddhists as a result.

Mahayana Deities

Mahayana Buddhists believe in bodhisattvas, figures who have achieved enlightenment but have turned away from nirvana to help others. In Mahayana practice, bodhisattvas have become like minor gods and saints. The most powerful of them are awaiting reincarnation in heaven, which is not the same thing as achieving nirvana. Mahayana Buddhists direct their prayers for assistance to the bodhisattvas.

The most popular of the Mahayana bodhisattvas is Avalokitesvara, a god of compassion or sympathy. Able to take any form to help humans, this deity grants requests to people who chant his name. Avalokitesvara can be represented as either a man or a woman, and (s)he is shown in statues and paintings with several pairs of arms sprouting from his/her body. In the palm of each hand is an eye of wisdom. Legend has it that Avalokitesvara has a thousand arms in order to better help all those who ask for assistance.

In China, because compassion is considered a female characteristic, Avalokitesvara is pictured as a beautiful woman wearing a white robe and is called Kuan Yin. One legend of Kuan Yin says that she was the daughter of a cruel man who wanted her to marry a wealthy man. Kuan Yin was very religious, though, and wanted to be a nun at a temple. Her father made the monks give her difficult chores to discourage her. Kuan Yin, however, was so good that the animals around the temple helped with her chores and convinced the father to allow his daughter to keep her religious life.

Another popular deity is Maitreya, also known as the Laughing Buddha. Loving and friendly, this deity is based on an early Zen monk who was known for his kindness. He is known as the Laughing Buddha because he is most often shown with a round belly sticking out of his robes, and with a big smile on his face. Rubbing his belly is supposed to bring good luck.

A third prominent deity is Majushi, also known as Wenshu in China. This bodhisattva never grows old and comes to people in their dreams as a beggar to help them reach enlightenment. He is shown holding a sword of wisdom in his right hand and a book in his left.

Another means of showing respect is by meditating on the qualities of enlightened bodhisattvas. For Buddhists, meditation is like prayer in other religious traditions. It focuses the mind and prepares it to understand or receive higher forms of knowledge or insight. There are two basic forms of meditation for Buddhists: stabilizing and analytical. In stabilizing meditation, the person is attempting to develop his or her powers of concentration. A simple technique used in stabilizing is to focus on one's breathing and then to clear the mind of all thought. Once the mind is clear, the person can focus on one Buddhist concept at a time. For example, a person might concentrate on the idea that life is impermanent and what that means to him or her.

Chanting a mantra or religious phrase is another meditation technique. Such mantras are generally in Sanskrit and are believed to be words used by a buddha when in deep meditation. The most frequently used mantra, especially in Tibetan Buddhism, is om mani padme hum, which is usually translated as "Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus." The jewel represents the teaching of the Buddha, while the lotus is the symbol of wisdom. By clearing the mind, a person prepares for analytical meditation, which allows for insights or sudden understanding. Western psychologists explain such thoughts as coming from the unconscious. In Buddhism, these insights lead to enlightenment.

Meditation requires deep concentration and a lack of distraction. As a result, many Buddhists need to meditate somewhere quiet and private. In some countries with a Theravada tradition, such as Thailand, a layperson, typically a man, can actually join a monastery for a short period of time in order to build up his powers of concentration before returning to life outside the monastery. While in the monastery, these laypeople live by strict Theravada principles. This means that they try to remain pure in thought and deed and go on alms rounds with the monks, observing silence all the while. Alms are donations of food, drink, or other objects. Personal possessions are limited to one pair of underwear, two yellow robes signifying discipline, a belt, a razor, a needle, a water strainer, and a bowl for collecting alms. During their stay they are educated in the principles of Buddhism and given instruction by the monks in right living. Once back from the monastery, these laypeople maintain small shrines in their homes, may go to preaching halls rather than temples to hear teachings, and visit sacred sites on pilgrimages.

The second major form of religious practice and worship involves the concept of dana, or generosity. It also deals with the relationship between the lay community and the monks and nuns. Monks and nuns represent a higher form of spiritual achievement. They share this experience and knowledge with laypeople through their examples, by teaching lessons from the sacred texts, and by holding ceremonies throughout the year. In return, the Buddhist lay community supports the monks and nuns with offerings of gifts and food. Theravada lay Buddhists give food to monks daily when the monks go on their begging rounds, or pindapata. Laypeople also help out with chores at temples, cooking and washing for the monks, or putting fresh flowers on a shrine. Laypeople in some Theravada countries provide all the food, clothing, and medicine for the sangha. The concept of dana, of generosity and gift-giving, helps to unite the community of laypeople and monks and nuns in the monasteries.

Where worship happens

Veneration and the practice of dana are used on their own and also as part of rituals and celebrations throughout the Buddhist year. Unlike religions such as Christianity and Judaism, Buddhism does not have regular weekly services. The closest thing to such a weekly tradition comes in Theravada Buddhism with the uposatha, days in which to renew a commitment to the religion. These days come on the first, eighth, fifteenth, and twenty-third days of the lunar month, which are determined by the phases of the moon and not by the movement of the sun as in the Western calendar. On these days lay Buddhists, those who are not nuns or monks, will visit the temple or the local monastery. They listen to monks reading from a Pali sutra or delivering a sermon or lesson, and they make offerings of food and clothing to the monks and nuns. They will also meditate on the Five Precepts.

Buddhists can worship at home, at a temple, or at a stupa, a stone pillar or burial mound inscribed with sayings of the Buddha. A Buddhist worshipping at home generally maintains a small shrine in a private area with a statue of the Buddha, candles, and an incense burner. Tibetan Buddhists often also have a photograph of their spiritual teacher on the home shrine. Other Buddhists may place Buddhist texts or Buddhist symbols, such as prayer beads or a bell, representing the enlightened mind, on their shrine. Buddhists pray to the Buddha or other buddhas at their home shrine, depending on the tradition. They usually bow before the image of the Buddha or buddhas as they worship. Buddhists also make offerings of food, incense, and water at their household shrines, just as they would in a temple or at a stupa. By making such offerings, and by meditating and practicing dana, Buddhists build merit, or credit for good deeds. This merit helps to determine what kind of life the Buddhist will experience with rebirth, and how close he or she is coming to enlightenment.

Temples and stupas

Buddhist temples, such as Cambodia's Angkor Wat and the temples at Sukothai in northern Thailand, are built to symbolize the five elements: water, air, fire, earth, and wisdom. The base of such temples is square, symbolizing the earth, and comes to a point at the top, representing wisdom. Buddhist temples generally have statues and shrines to the Buddha or to buddhas and bodhisattvas. For the followers of Theravada, only images of the Buddha are used as aids to meditation, focusing on his virtue. But Mahayanists worship many different buddhas and bodhisattvas. Images and statues of these, especially in Tibet and China, are included in the temples and are thought to have miraculous or supernatural powers. In China and Japan, Buddhist temples are called pagodas and are built several stories high, with a curved roof and a tower on top.

Though most Buddhist temples are found in Asia, there are also Buddhist temples and centers in other parts of the world. For example, there are temples in more than one-half of the states in the United States. These temples often serve the dual purpose of both religious and cultural centers for the faithful. People must always remove their shoes before entering a Buddhist temple to show respect. While followers of Theravada typically go to the temple for uposatha and for festivals, in Mahayana Buddhism the faithful go to the temple whenever they choose, making offerings and praying to various images.

Stupas also serve as places of worship. Though once simple in form, stupas have become larger over the centuries, with some, such as the Shwedagon stupa in Rangoon, Burma (Myanmar), reaching one hundred feet in height. Many also are now decorated with beautiful carvings and gold. Outside the stupas the faithful either meditate on the teachings of the master buried there or walk around the structure three times to remind themselves of the three major elements of Buddhism: the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha.

Observances and pilgrimages

The most important holy days for Buddhists are New Year's, Wesak, Dharma Day, Kathina Day, and Sangha Day. The dates of these festivals can vary not only between Theravada and Mahayana branches, but also from sect to sect and from country to country. Moreover, since Buddhists (except those in Japan) use the lunar calendar, the schedule of such holy days can be confusing for Westerners. The Buddhist year begins with the New Year's festival, symbolizing the death and rebirth of the year. In Theravada countries such as Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Laos, the New Year is celebrated for three days from the first full moon day in April. In Mahayana countries, the New Year usually starts on the first full moon day in January, and Tibetan Buddhists generally celebrate it in March. To prepare for the New Year, Buddhists clean their houses very thoroughly and perform cleansing rituals with water to drive out evil spirits. As with all the holy days of Buddhism, the three days of the New Year's celebration include visits to the temple to bring offerings of incense, cloth, flowers, and money for the monks. There are also processions through the streets carrying images of the Buddha, as well as feasting, dancing, and sports events.

Wesak (also spelled Vesak) is the most important of Buddhist holy days, celebrated on the full moon in May for Theravada countries. Wesak takes its name from the name of the Indian month in which it is held. In Japan it is celebrated in April and is called Hana Matsuri. While some Buddhists celebrate this day only as the Buddha's day of birth, Theravada followers believe it also celebrates the day he became enlightened and died. Homes are cleaned and decorated, and lanterns are set out to symbolize enlightenment. In countries such as Cambodia and Thailand, large numbers of caged birds are set free and live fish are returned to rivers to symbolize the freedom that comes with enlightenment. In other Theravada countries religious processions circle the temple or stupa three times to symbolize the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. Plays that depict scenes of the Buddha's lives are also presented. Many Buddhists visit their local temples for chanting and teachings, and offerings are given to the monks. Gifts of food and clothing are also laid at the feet of the Buddha statue in the temple.

Dharma Day celebrates the beginning of the Buddha's teachings. Traditionally this celebration fell in the eighth lunar month and marked the time when the Buddha and his followers went into retreat for several months during the rainy season. The day is usually celebrated with teachings from the Buddha's first sermon at Deer Park. The retreat months (August to October) are called Vassa. This is a time for Buddhists to renew their belief. The end of this period is marked by the festival of Kathina (held within a month of the end of Vassa). This is a time when new robes are given to the monks by the people of the community.

Sangha Day, also called Magha Puja Day, is held on the full moon day of the third lunar month (March). It celebrates the religious community, or sangha, and recalls the time when more than one thousand enlightened monks gathered to hear the Buddha's first sermon, the Turning of the Wheel of Law or Truth. This sermon detailed the rules for monastic orders. In a tradition similar to Christmas, gifts are exchanged on Sangha Day.


Buddhists have four main places of pilgrimage: the Buddha's birthplace in Lumbini, Nepal; Bodh Gaya, a small town in India that is the site of the Buddha's enlightenment; Sarnath, also in India and sometimes called Deer Park, where the Buddha gave his first sermon regarding the Four Noble Truths; and Kusinagar, India, where the Buddha died at the age of eighty. Lumbini, in modern-day Nepal, is the most significant of pilgrimage sites for Buddhists. Tradition tells that it was here that the Buddha was born in about 563 bce. In 1996 a team of archaeologists sponsored by the United Nations began excavations and uncovered what they declared was the birth room or chamber of Siddhartha. This discovery finally resolved a longtime dispute between India and Nepal over which country could claim the Buddha's birthplace.


Mudras are sacred hand gestures. Mudras in Buddhism can commonly be seen in statues and other images of the Buddha and bodhisattvas. In these images, they are meant to symbolize the presence of the divine and to relay a particular significance. They are used in meditation to aid in concentration and are also present in Indian classical dance to convey meaning.

There are several different kinds of mudras. The abhaya, or fearlessness, mudra is made by raising the right hand to the shoulder, with the palm of the hand facing outward and the fingers extended straight and together. The left arm rests along the side of the body. The abhaya mudra is meant to eliminate fear and provide peace and protection.

Often performed at the same time as the abhaya mudra is the varada, or wish-granting, mudra. It is usually made with the left hand, with the arm hanging naturally at the side, the open palm facing forward, and fingers extended. The extended fingers represent the five perfections: generosity, morality, patience, effort, and meditative concentration. This mudra stands for compassion and charity.

The dharmachakra, or wheel-turning, mudra is formed by touching together the tips of the thumb and index finger on both hands. The circle made by this positioning represents the Dharma Wheel. The hands are held in front of the heart to show that the teachings are from the Buddha's heart. This mudra symbolizes the occasion of the Buddha's first sermon after he achieved enlightenment.

There are two different forms of the dhyana, or meditation, mudra. When the left hand is resting in the lap and the right hand is in another position, the dhyana mudra represents wisdom. When both hands are in dhyana mudra, they are usually resting at the level of the stomach or thighs, with the right hand above the left, palms facing upward, and fingers extended. In some instances, the thumbs of the two hands will touch the fingertips. This mudra is one of meditation and concentration.

The anjali mudra is made by placing the palms of the hand and fingers flat together, often before the heart. Sometimes the head is slightly bowed. This gesture can be found in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity. Statues of the bodhisattvas may display the anjali mudra, which indicates respect and worship. Hindus use this gesture in greeting, while Christians may position their hands in this fashion when they pray.

The archaeologists uncovered a series of fifteen chambers buried about 16 feet (4.8 meters) beneath an ancient temple marking the site of the Buddha's birth. There they found a platform of bricks with a memorial stone on top that dated to 249 bce. This was the year that Emperor Ashoka, who did much to promote the spread of Buddhism, was supposed to have placed a platform of bricks over the Buddha's birthplace. The archaeologists discovered a stupa nearby, also built by Ashoka, with coins and a figurine of the Buddha. In 2005, sixteen countries, including Nepal, Japan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Korea, Singapore, and Thailand, agreed to create a World Peace City in Lumbini.

The great stupa monument at Sanchi in India also attracts many pilgrims, as does the Tibetan holy city of Lhasa, the Yun-kang caves of China with their giant carved buddhas, and the Sri Lankan ruined temple complex of Anuradhpura. There are also many local temples, shrines, and stupas that attract the faithful, such as the Temple of Kandy in Sri Lanka that displays a tooth relic of the Buddha.

Buddhists go on pilgrimages for many reasons. For some, it is one more discipline in their practice and one that can add to spiritual development. Others go on pilgrimages to fulfill a vow or pledge made to the Buddha or buddhas. For example, a person might pray to one particular Buddhist saint in order to recover from sickness or to deal with a particular problem. As part of their promise, they travel to a pilgrimage site dedicated to that saint and make offerings. Still others go on pilgrimages as a way of blending a vacation with their religious practice. Pilgrimage is an important practice for Buddhists, but not one that is required of them. There are no specific times of the year when such pilgrimages are made, though many visit Lumbini or one of the Indian sites for Wesak.

Everyday living

Buddhism's central principle states that, in order to achieve nirvana, one must behave in a moral way, avoid harmful actions, and train and purify the mind. The Eightfold Path and the Five Precepts list measures that all Buddhists should honor in their daily lives. In order to respect the first precept, to refrain from harming living creatures, many Buddhists are vegetarians, meaning they do not eat food that comes from animals. Some Buddhists, following the precept about avoidance of intoxicating drink, do not drink alcohol. Others follow the Buddha's own recommendation about taking a middle path in such matters, practicing not abstinence, but moderation in food and drink. Right work, also a part of the Eightfold Path, helps to determine one's profession. Professions that help rather than harm people, such as teaching, construction of homes, and nature conservation, may be attractive to Buddhists.

The extent to which Buddhism affects one's daily life, however, greatly depends on tradition and location. For example, in predominantly Theravada countries, believers periodically spend weeks or months each year in a monastery. In Thailand, lay Buddhists recite prayers or meditate during the day and provide alms of food and clothing to monks on their pindapata (alms-rounds). Lay Buddhists await these monks on their alms-rounds, with rice, fruit, and even small packets of food wrapped in banana leaves. No verbal thanks are given by the monks, only a nod of the head. Buddhists believe that the act of giving is more perfect without thanks. After performing this act of dana, the lay Buddhists go to their jobs or homes, having started the day with a virtuous act.

In the United States and other non-Asian countries, some Buddhists choose to live together in a sangha and build their daily lives around Buddhist principles. Others go about their daily activities and meet with their sangha weekly or monthly. Some choose to dress in robes, although there is no official dress code for the Buddhist laity.

The Buddha did not organize his teachings into a formal structure. It was more important to him that believers follow the dharma to reach enlightenment. Buddhists are not required to attend temple or worship in a particular way. Certain practices, however, have developed to allow people to worship together and share a common experience. If not regularly attending a temple or observing at a shrine, Buddhists can still honor the Buddha's teachings in their daily lives by following the Eightfold Path. Daily meditation is also a usual practice for devout Buddhists.

Rites at birth

Buddhism is closely connected to the rites of passage of birth, marriage, and death. In some countries, including Malaysia, there are certain rites that can be performed when a woman is about to give birth. Usually the husband will recite certain sutras and prayers, including the Angulimala Paritta, named after the Buddhist saint, Angulimala, who took special care of women in childbirth. This prayer states, "Sister, since I was born, I (intuitively) know that I have not intentionally deprived any living being of life. By this truth may there be well-being for you, well-being for the unborn child!"

After the birth of a child in Theravada countries, the parents take the child to the local temple to be given a name. Then the baby is blessed by monks and sprinkled with water. This is followed by a final ceremony with a candle. The lit candle is tilted so that drops of wax fall into a bowl of water and become solid again. This symbolizes the blending of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water.

Rites at marriage

Marriage is considered a secular, or nonreligious, contract for Buddhists. But in addition to a civil ceremony, a Buddhist wedding ceremony can be held, with a monk presiding. In Theravada countries a wedding ceremony will include the symbolic joining of the entire community by wrapping a long piece of string or thread around a picture of the Buddha and then around all those present. The monk cuts two pieces from the string and wraps one around the wrist of the groom. The groom then wraps the second piece of string or thread around his bride's wrist, symbolizing their unity. In Sri Lanka the wedding ceremony is called Poruwa Siritha, or Poruwa Ceremony. The Poruwa is a beautifully decorated wooden platform on which the traditional Buddhist marriage ceremony takes place. The bride and groom enter the Poruwa leading with the right foot. They greet each other with palms held together in the traditional manner of the anjali mudra. Instead of a ring, the groom places a gold chain around the bride's neck and presents her with a white cloth, which she gives to her mother. This symbolizes the groom's thanks to the bride's mother for bringing up her daughter correctly.

In other countries the ceremony is simpler, with the bride and groom and family and friends gathered at a shrine of the Buddha. The couple makes offerings of food, flowers, and incense to the Buddha and lights candles. Then the groom and bride recite from the Sigilovdda Sutra. The groom first says to the bride, "Towards my wife I undertake to love and respect her, be kind and considerate, be faithful, delegate domestic management, provide gifts to please her." Then the bride says, "Towards my husband I undertake to perform my household duties efficiently, be hospitable to my in-laws and friends of my husband, be faithful, protect and invest our earnings, discharge my responsibilities lovingly and conscientiously."

Following this, the guests and parents recite various sutras and chants as a blessing. The Mangala Sutra is a typical text for this occasion. It states, in part, "Not to associate with fools, to associate with the wise, and pay honor to those who are worthy of honor, that is the highest blessing." The Vandana is another Pali chant used in some ceremonies: "Homage to the triple gems, homage to him, the blessed one, the exalted one, the fully enlightened one." A wedding feast follows the ceremony.

Rites at death

There are a number of Buddhist ceremonies connected with death and funerals. Even at the time of dying, Buddhists believe there is possibility for enlightenment. Some Buddhists wish to go to a monastery to die, while others bring monks and nuns to the home or hospital to pray and chant. In Tibetan Buddhism especially, the moment of death is a time for transformation or changing of a person's consciousness. Tibetan Buddhists have a ceremony called phowa to aid in the liberation of the consciousness, or enlightenment, at the time of death. The phowa prayer is recited: "Through your blessing, grace, and guidance, through the power of the light that streams from you: May all my negative karma, destructive emotions, obscurations [withholdings], and blockages be purified and removed, May I know myself forgiven for all the harm I may have thought and done, May I accomplish this profound practice of phowa and die a good and peaceful death, And through the triumph of my death, may I be able to benefit all other beings, living or dead."

Upon the death of a Buddhist, a monk is called in to say something about the person. The monk also recites the Five Precepts, a reminder of the changing nature of all living things. Then the monk or a relative pours water into an empty bowl until it overflows into a dish below. This signifies the merit gained by those attending the death. Then the following words are often recited: "Let the pure thoughts of goodwill be shared by my relative and may he/she be happy. As water runs from the rivers to fill the ocean, may well-being and merit within us pour forth and reach our beloved departed one." The body is then cleaned and put into clothing for burial. As the dead person is already assumed to have been reborn, no jewels or possessions are put into the coffin for the deceased to take along into death.

In many Buddhist countries bodies are cremated after death. Friends of the family gather at this ceremony and offer what is called "incense money," to purchase incense for the cremation. Feasts are generally served following a cremation and prayers said for the dead. In Tibet it is believed that forty-nine days must pass after the death prayers are said before the deceased can enter a new existence. This period between death and rebirth is called bardo. A photograph or image of the deceased is burned at that time, to wish the person goodwill in his or her new life. Chinese Buddhists also believe in the seven-week period between death and rebirth. They offer prayers for the dead every seven days for forty-nine days and also at the hundredth day after death.

Buddhism's influences

With more than four million followers worldwide, Buddhism is considered to be one of the major world religions. In addition to its religious influence Buddhism has also played an important part in the development of many forms of art and architecture, and has even influenced Western psychology (the science of the mind and its behavior).

Buddhism impacts the arts

Buddhist art has had a major impact on the arts of Asia. For example, the image of the Buddha has played as significant a role in Asian art as the image of Christianity's founder, Jesus Christ (c. 6 bce–c. 30 ce) has in Western art. In early Indian versions, the Buddha is generally portrayed smiling, which is meant to show his experience of enlightenment and inner peace. The eyes are often closed, and he is often portrayed seated on a lotus throne with his hands shaped into mudras. This Indian style of representing the Buddha spread with the religion across Asia. In China the Buddha was often portrayed in golden robes with heavy folds. Over time, his eyes and face took on a Chinese appearance. Depictions of the Buddha often were made far larger than life size. In South Korea, at Sokkuram Grotto on Mt. Toham, the Buddha image was carved out of the face of a mountain. Another giant Buddha was carved out of a cliff in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Called the Buddha Vairocana, it guarded the road to Central Asia for centuries until it was destroyed by the Taliban government in 2001.

A different Buddha Vairocana was created in Japan in the eighth century ce. It stood more than 50 feet high, weighed more than 200 tons, and was decorated with 500 pounds of gold. Sri Lanka also has a monumental Buddha sculpture, the Reclining Buddha. About fifty feet long, it is carved out of granite at the Gal Vihara Temple in Polonnaruwa. Thus, the image of the Buddha provided inspiration for the creation of great art works throughout Asia, most of them created by monks who wished to show their devotion and love for the Buddha.

Buddhism also influenced art in Asia beyond religious works. In Japan, for example, Zen Buddhism had a strong influence on many art forms. Simplicity and purity are traditionally part of Zen teachings, as is the calmness that comes with meditation. Zen painters were free to focus on subjects other than the bodhisattvas that dominated Mahayana art. The Zen art of portraiture was one of the earliest to depict humans in a realistic manner. The Zen Doctrine of Emptiness or the Void influenced nonreligious Japanese painters to leave parts of the canvas or paper empty. The viewer mentally fills in what the artist leaves out. In addition, Zen art influenced the painting style of sumi-e. In this simple style, black ink and a brush are used to produce many shades of gray. Such pictures may be only a swirl of lines to suggest a scene from nature. This depiction of nature by Japanese artists was influenced by the Zen saying, "The trees show the bodily form of the wind."

Allied to the visual arts is Buddhist influence on the manuscript arts, including calligraphy (fine handwriting), block printing, and illumination, or book illustration. In China and Japan calligraphy became a true art form. In China such writing skill was a blend of dharma philosophy with the older Chinese tradition of landscape painting. Buddhist monasteries became safe libraries for beautifully illustrated Buddhist texts, just as Christian monasteries preserved illuminated holy works.

Buddhist architecture also influenced sacred building styles across Asia. Buddhist architecture began with the simple stupa, a mound originally covering the ashes of the Buddha. These became increasingly ornate (decorated) over the years. Once the stupa was exported to China it developed into a building called a pagoda. These tall, multistoried towers have upward-curving tiled roofs and were initially used just as the stupa, to enclose a Buddhist relic. Soon this building style spread with Buddhism to Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. The pagoda also changed function. No longer was it just a closed tower for a relic, but a building for worship, a Buddhist temple. The pagoda has become a characteristic Chinese and Japanese building style in religious architecture.

Buddhist influences on science

Nonreligious Buddhist influence has also been felt in the West. Psychotherapy, or treatment of mental and emotional disorders using psychological methods, has also long recognized the benefits of using some Buddhist principles. There are similarities between the two systems. Buddhism, like psychotherapy, attempts to help people discover why they are suffering so that they can then help to heal themselves. Some also see a similarity in the idea of "taking refuge" in both systems. In Buddhism, the participant stays in a monastery to focus on personal growth. Similarly, in psychotherapy, the patient seeks refuge in the doctor's office to try to work through his or her personal problems. Self-awareness is a Buddhist goal, and Buddhist practices from meditation to self-observation techniques are employed by Western psychologists and psychotherapists to help their patients. In particular, psychologists see the similarity between the Buddhist goal of enlightenment and the psychotherapist's goal of freeing the unconscious mind.

Buddhism has influenced the world both religiously and in secular, or nonreligious, ways since its introduction 2,500 years ago. The scientist Albert Einstein (1879–1955) conceded the influence and importance of Buddhism when he wrote in The Merging of Spirit and Science, "The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual and a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description…. If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism."

For More Information


Buswell, Robert E., Jr., ed. Encyclopedia of Buddhism. New York, NY: Macmillan Reference, 2003.

Chodzin, Sherab, and Alexandra Kohn. The Wisdom of the Crows and Other Buddhist Tales. Berkeley, CA: Tricycle Press, 1998.

Gach, Gary, and Michael Wenger. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism. New York, NY: Alpha Books, 2001.

Gard, Richard. Buddhism. New York, NY: George Braziller, 1962.

Hagan, Steve. Buddhism Plain and Simple. New York, NY: Broadway Books, 1999.

Hewitt, Catharine. Buddhism. New York, NY: Thomson Learning, 1995.

Keown, Damien. Dictionary of Buddhism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Netzley, Patricia D. Buddhism. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, Inc., 2002.

Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. New York, NY: Grove Press, 1974.

Smith, Huston. "Buddhism." In The Religions of Man. New York, NY: Harper/Colophon Books, 1958, 80-141.

Snelling, George. The Buddhist Handbook. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1991.

Watts, Alan. Buddhism: The Religion of No-Religion. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 1995.


Leithart, Peter J. "When East Is West." First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life (May 2005): 11.

Mishra, Pankaj. "A Deeper Sense of Happiness: Buddhism Teaches That the Mind, Not the Wallet, Is the Path to Contentment." Time International (February 28, 2005): 47.


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"Buddhism." ReligionFacts. http://www.religionfacts.com/buddhism/index.htm (accessed on May 7, 2006).

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Introduction to Buddhism. http://www.ship.edu/∼cgboeree/buddhaintro.html (accessed on May 7, 2006).


views updated Jun 27 2018


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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Robinson, Richard H., and Willard L. Johnson. The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction. 4th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1997.

Strong, John. The Experience of Buddhism: Sources and Interpretations. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1995.

Takakusu, Junjiro. The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy. 3rd ed. Edited by by Wing-tsit Chan and Charles A. Moore. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1956.

Tambiah, Stanley J. World Conqueror and World Renouncer. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Walpola, Rahula. What the Buddha Taught. Rev. ed. New York: Grove Press, 1974.

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

Brian Smith


views updated Jun 11 2018


Buddhism began in what is now northern India with the life of its founder, Siddhārtha Gautama of the Śākya tribe (c. 563–483 bce), simply referred to as the Buddha (a title meaning "the enlightened one"). Traditional accounts say he was born the son of a king. At the time of his birth a holy man predicted that he would either rule the world or renounce it. In order to ensure his glorious future as a great king, the Buddha's father brought him up in luxury and prevented him from seeing anything unpleasant. When he was about twenty-nine years old, however, the Buddha traveled outside the palace grounds and was radically changed by four visions created by the gods: He saw a sick man, an old man, a dead man, and a wandering male ascetic, four aspects of human experience that his father had prevented him from seeing. The ascetic represented the solution of the existential problem of suffering posed by the first three visions. He would become an ascetic and seek a way to liberate himself from the repetitive cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that is inevitably attended by sickness and aging. He abandoned worldly life and sought enlightenment, a profound shift of consciousness that frees one from the worldly desires that lead to continual reincarnations. This story is told in all the major biographies of the Buddha along with the other main events of his life: his miraculous conception and birth, life in his father's palace, his years of ascetic practices, and, after great effort, his enlightenment. A pivotal event is the Buddha's departure from home, when he abandons not only his wife but also the many women of his harem. This is a popular textual and iconographic scene that represents women both as sexual temptresses and as physically disgusting when the Buddha sees them asleep, lying in awkward positions, drooling and snoring.

For six years after leaving home the Buddha practiced such severe forms of asceticism that he was near death. His dead mother, Queen Māyā, descended from heaven to remind him of his spiritual destiny, and at her prompting the Buddha decided on a more moderate path, the "middle path," between the severe asceticism he had been practicing and the worldly life of pleasure he had led as a prince. To this end, he accepted the food offered to him by a young village woman named Sujātā. His five male followers, who later became the first monks, doubted that he would now achieve enlightenment, and abandoned him to food and females. Left alone, the Buddha continued his process of reconciliation with females from all realms of existence—human (living and dead), divine, and animal; not only was he refreshed and strengthened by this process, he also reintegrated positive experiences of women and female forces and reversed his earlier rejection of them. Then, and only then, was he ready to move toward the Bodhi tree under which he battled the demon Māra, a battle that turned in his favor only when he met Māra's challenge to find a witness for his merit by calling on the Earth herself, which he did by extending his right hand downward. Iconographically this is one of the most popular Buddha images, called the bhūmisparśa, the earth-touching pose. This is the main icon of the Buddha's supreme achievement, enlightenment, and by the gesture of his right hand it signals the necessary female component of that achievement. Historically, however, the Buddhist community has only intermittently lived up to the equalitarian possibilities of this vision.


Most information about the early Buddhist community comes from canonical sources, for instance, the Pali Canon, a multivolume collection of sermons, rules, folklore, philosophical discourses, and poems. The Pali Canon was compiled and edited by Theravāda monks in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) beginning around the first century bce from much earlier oral sources, although additional material continued to be added until at least the fifth century ce. A significant part of this literature is the shared canon of all Buddhists, although compilers of the Mahāyāna and Tantric canons made additions. In general, at least two basic points need to be made about this literature. First, comparisons of the same events described in different canons show gendered disjunctions that are suggestive of conflicting views about women. For example, in the Pali canon women are absent from the Buddha's funeral, whereas in the Mūlasarvāstivādin Vinaya (completed about the third century ce) women held the processional canopy over the Buddha's bier, which was carried by the men. Second, as with most of the world's religious texts, the Buddhist canons have been compiled and written by men and have a misogynist edge. Thus, the existence of any information at all on early Buddhist women is strong evidence for the persistence of a powerful female presence and suggests that much more material has been lost. In spite of the foregoing, the canons reveal what Buddhists have believed about women for centuries and provide authority both for women seeking to reform sexist tendencies in Buddhism and those who oppose such reforms. The information provided by these texts gets slippery, however, as they move with an easy fluidity between myth and real life, blurring any distinction between the two, and therefore they must be grounded in the archaeological, epigraphic, and iconographic evidence that documents women's participation, especially as donors (Findly 2003, Schopen 1997).

After his enlightenment the Buddha established a religious community that practiced his ideas, and he continued to preach and shape this community until his death at age eighty, forty-five years later. Its center was composed of the nuns and monks who renounced worldly life. hey were celibate, ate only one meal per day, begged for their food from the laity, and spent most of the year wandering from place to place in order not to become attached to one spot. This path is a model for a moderate life that emphasizes meditation as a way to change one's conscious perception of the world in order to reach enlightenment in this life. Included in this community were the lay supporters who gained merit by giving to the monastics, which helped the former to be reborn in a position deemed more favorable to spiritual progress. The lay supporters adopted five precepts: no taking of any life (animal or human), no stealing, no illicit sex, no lying, and no intoxicating substances. In the early twenty-first century, the Buddhist community retains this general outline with the exception that monasteries were later established as permanent communities and the goal of enlightenment was eventually seen as less attainable in one lifetime. Of interest with regard to stationary versus wandering nuns and monks is a third group, solitary forest-dwellers. Among Buddhists there was and remains an enduring conflict between the ideal of the solitary forest monastic, who may attract a few disciples, and that of monastics settled in monasteries in or near towns who offer time-consuming services to the laity such as being educators and performing rituals. It is widely believed that certain charismatic forest-dwellers achieve greater states of wisdom and power than their city-dwelling brethren. Traditionally, the forest has been a place of greater religious freedom, whereas large monasteries tend to routinize practice and absorb the energies of its members in the numerous activities involved in running a large institution. Significantly, the spiritual abilities of women were more accepted among forest-dwelling renunciants than among those settled in monasteries (Ray 1994).

The Buddha's first female disciple was his stepmother and aunt (his mother's sister), Mahāprajāpatī. She is an important figure in early Buddhism because she became the first Buddhist nun and maintained a lifelong relationship with the Buddha. Although the textual record of her ordination is highly problematic, many scholars accept as historical fact the story that the Buddha was initially reluctant to ordain her and that he created eight additional rules for nuns. Actually this story is quite possibly a later interpolation and/or just a dramatic device (Sponberg 1992, Walters 1994, Young 1994). It is descriptive of existing conditions, the subordination of the nuns to the monks, rather than a prescription by the Buddha that this is the way it should be. Of note, however, is the propagation of this story as fact throughout the Buddhist world and the eventual decline of the nuns' ordination lineage. This whole scenario is perhaps best viewed in light of the routinization of charisma whereby followers eventually retract the innovations of charismatic leaders—in the case of the Buddha, the prominent role of women. Additionally, the legend of the first ordination of women needs to be understood within the context of contemporaneous activities of other ascetic women, such as the Jain order of nuns and their rather different history (Young 2004). Significantly, through this first ordination the Buddha affirmed women's ability to achieve enlightenment, and Mahāprajāpatī's own biography is a testament to that ability (Walters 1994) as are the nuns' poems in the Therīgāthā. The main goal is enlightenment, and here women are equal to men, though this was and remains a highly contested issue (Young 2004).

The Buddha's wife, or wives (depending on the tradition), also deserves careful attention, not necessarily for what may have been her actual relationship to the Buddha, but for what various traditions have done with her as a symbol of womanhood (Shaw 1994, Strong 1997, Young 2004, Zelliot 1992). She is also a particularly intriguing figure in the jātakas, the past life stories of the Buddha, most of which he shared with her.

In early Buddhism the maleness of the Buddha took on an exaggerated importance that culminated in enduring debates as to whether women are capable of achieving enlightenment or if they must first reincarnate as men. Such a view is not limited to Buddhists; it was part of a pan-Indian view in which male superiority most often looked to female inferiority for validation. In fact, it is all too familiar in the religions of the world as well as in other cultural constructs. Buddha's maleness, which belonged to his historical identity, was misinterpreted as essential to his salvational role. Thus, existing male social privileges were confirmed, in part because male privileges went beyond what was socially permissible for women, and in part because the greater physical accuracy of men's resemblance to the Buddha led to an identification with the Buddha that was physically impossible for women.

Yet the Buddha's life is a redefinition of masculinity, one that introduces new masculine values and reinterprets some old ones, such as the heroic masculine ideals of his early life that were based on his royal status. He chose instead to build on the Indian ideal of the virile ascetic whose sexual abstinence is the source of his power. Indian stories abound with examples of ascetics who by withholding their semen gained tremendous power and even threatened the gods. Though there were stories about female ascetics, and even though many of the early Buddhist nuns are said to have achieved enlightenment, the belief arose that men alone are capable of fully representing and/or achieving what the Buddha did. The power to expound and enact this ideology resided within a male, monastic hierarchy that questioned women's access to ordination, gave official voice and visibility primarily to men, controlled the texts of the tradition, and finally, so completely marginalized women's monastic participation that the ordination of nuns completely ceased throughout South and Southeast Asia.

In early-twenty-first-century Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia there are communities of Buddhist women referred to as eight- or ten-precept nuns. These are women who take the precepts of an ordained monk without an ordination ceremony. They dress all in white, as opposed to the yellow/orange robes of the monks, and most often act as servants to the monks, though some choose to live independently and pursue good works and meditation (Bartholomeusz 1994). The ordination ceremony for nuns did survive in East Asia, where there are flourishing communities of fully ordained nuns.


Innovations in doctrine occurred slowly over the centuries, with various schools distinguishing themselves, most of which eventually disappeared. This early period of Buddhism is best described as Nikāya or Sectarian Buddhism. By around the first century bce two distinct schools of Buddhism had been established. The first is Theravāda, the only surviving school of the early period, which spread south from northern India into Sri Lanka and eventually east to Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. Its ideal type is the arhat, a nun or monk who has achieved enlightenment. The other school is Mahāyāna, which grew out of various sectarian groups, taking shape as a separate school of Buddhism in northern India around the first century bce; it is the form of Buddhism that spread north to Tibet and east to China, Korea, and Japan. This school understands itself to contain the esoteric doctrine of the Buddha—his nonpublic teachings—and its religious ideal is the bodhisattva, an enlightened being of infinite compassion who postpones final personal enlightenment in order to continue to reincarnate and help all other beings to achieve enlightenment. Bodhisattvas can be human or divine, female or male, thus leaving the path of spiritual accomplishment open to women, though they often met with the usual difficulties of sexist societies and religious hierarchies.

Human bodhisattvas strive to perfect themselves through giving, developing patience, making an effort in whatever they do, practicing meditation, and developing their wisdom. Celestial bodhisattvas are divine beings who can be supplicated by human beings. One of the best known and most complex is Avalokiteśvara, the great protector from all manner of physical danger. In the process of his dissemination throughout Asia he was transformed into a female deity known as Kuan Yin in China and Kannon in Japan, and was referred to as the Goddess of Mercy. In Tibet he remained male but is associated with Tārā, a female celestial bodhisattava well known for her compassion and her ability to protect those who appeal to her.

Mahāyāna emphasizes contemplation, visualization, and, most importantly, recitations of the name of particular male celestial buddhas such as Amitābha. This had great appeal to a laity who, for various reasons, could not or would not become monks or nuns. Celestial buddhas are believed to have achieved enlightenment many eons ago, long before the time of Gautama Buddha. They, too, were originally human bodhisattvas who, when they made their vow to become a buddha, described the Pure Land they would create. A Pure Land is a celestial realm that has been purified by the presence and teachings of a buddha, in contrast to impure lands that lack a buddha and his teachings.

The Pure Land of Amitābha Buddha, called Sukhāvatī, is the Pure Land encountered most often in literature and art. It is depicted as a sweet-smelling and beautiful garden with lotus ponds and trees made of precious jewels, where all the needs of its inhabitants are satisfied. Rebirth here can be achieved by a combination of good deeds and repeating, in some cases just hearing, the name of Amitābha Buddha. Rebirth in this paradise is one's final incarnation, as it is inevitable that buddhahood will be achieved here, but only males are born in Sukhāvatī. Reincarnating beings gestate and are born from lotuses, thereby circumventing the need for wombs. Pure Land Buddhism became an extremely popular and widespread form of worship throughout Asia.


A third school of Buddhism, variously called Esoteric Buddhism, Vajrayāna, and/or Tantra began sometime around the fourth century ce. This movement had its roots in the popular religions of northern India that contained many magical and shamanistic features as well as in the worship of goddesses such as Tārā and Vajrayoginī and spread throughout the Buddhist world. It stresses enlightenment in one lifetime in contradistinction to the idea of gradual enlightenment over several lifetimes, which had developed in some sects of Mahāyāna and Theravāda, and it emphasizes individual visionary experiences. Its ideal type is the siddha, who could be women or men, but most often the tradition is described from the male point of view.

Eventually, Tantra was institutionalized into mainstream Buddhist practice, though the more unruly siddha tradition continued to flourish among individual wandering yogis. Tantric practices involve ritually ingesting forbidden substances, such as wine and meat, and engaging in sexual intercourse. Generally, Tantric monks maintained their vows of celibacy by resorting to visualization in Tantric rituals, although many famous, non-monastic Buddhist saints did the actual practice.

Tantra spread throughout South, Southeast, Central, and East Asia and survives in the early twenty-first century among Buddhists in the Himalayan countries of Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan; in Japan in the Shingon and Tendai schools of Buddhism; and among exiled Tibetans everywhere. Not all Vajrayāna Buddhists participate in its esoteric rituals. Laypeople and many monks and nuns are content with less complicated practices such as circumambulating sacred structures, going on pilgrimage, chanting, and performing meritorious acts.

Women, both lay and monastic, were instrumental in spreading all three schools of Buddhism as missionaries (Bode 1893, Findly 2003), teachers, practitioners, and donors. Because of the historical importance of royal support in the spread and maintenance of Buddhism, the contributions of royal women were tremendously important. Most of this support, however, was directed toward monks, not nuns. This hinges on the concept of merit (Skt.: puṇya; Pali: panna), the idea that donations whether monetary or through actions and prayers create merit that will lead to better future lives in Buddhist heavens or other circumstances that will be conducive to achieving enlightenment. In practice merit is usually dedicated to the good of all sentient beings or to the donor's parents, but the donor also receives spiritual benefits. At issue is the belief that monks make a better, more productive, field of merit than nuns, from which inevitably followed, and continues to follow, the wealth of male establishments and the poverty of nuns. Despite such views about the qualities of actual women, important Buddhist values were often conceived in feminine terms such as compassion (karuṇā) and wisdom (prajñā).


Buddhism was very successful in adapting itself to many diverse cultures, in part because rather than opposing indigenous religious practices, it incorporated them. Modern Buddhism in Asia begins around the sixteenth century with the shock of European colonialism and the consequent rise of nationalism. In Cambodia and Laos the Communist takeovers of the governments were disastrous for Buddhism, especially in Cambodia where tens of thousands of monks were executed and innumerable monasteries destroyed. In the early twenty-first century, Buddhism is slowly recovering in these countries.

In China the rise of the Communist regime in 1949 led to the confiscation of Buddhist properties and forced many nuns and monks to return to lay life. When, in 1950, the Chinese took over Tibet, monks and nuns were imprisoned, tortured, and humiliated for years. In early-twenty-first-century Tibet many of the monasteries have been rebuilt, though some are more like tourist shops than monasteries. The Chinese authorities carefully monitor the monasteries and nunneries, which they continue to view with suspicion because nuns and monks are still active in seeking Tibetan independence. In India there are approximately 100,000 Tibetan refugees, who have rebuilt their monastic institutions there and have established a government-in-exile under the Dalai Lama.

In 1868 the Japanese emperor was restored to power, and this government was initially quite hostile to Buddhism. It took over a great deal of Buddhist property and changed the face of Japanese Buddhism in two important ways. First, it issued a decree that all Buddhist monks should be allowed to marry, with the end result that there are few celibate monks, although nuns have maintained their vows of celibacy. The second change developed in relation to the government's expansionistic and militaristic policy. A new generation of Buddhist scholars redefined Buddhism in relation to Japanese nationalism and Western rationalism and science.

When Japan annexed Korea in 1910 as part of its program of military expansion it changed Korean Buddhism in order to have Japanese Zen be dominant. They also wanted Buddhist monks to renounce their vows of celibacy and to marry. This led some Korean monks to oppose the Japanese, but many did get married. The legacy of this is a divided Buddhist monastic community. After the Japanese left in 1945 those monks who remained celibate demanded that the monks who had married be thrown out of their monasteries and out of the order. Subsequently, the married priests formed their own order.

In the early twenty-first century, Asian Buddhists are deeply involved with social and political issues along with meditation practices and the search for enlightenment. Monks and nuns were involved in opposing the Vietnam War, and in Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam they are actively participating in social welfare and education programs. Additionally, throughout South and Southeast Asia nuns are striving to raise their status as monastics.

Throughout Asia there is a remarkable acceptance of Western converts, who are welcomed at pilgrimage sites and accepted as disciples. For approximately 2,500 years Buddhism has been a religion that seeks converts of any race or faith. Its enduring success can be seen in the West today, where Buddhist centers have been established by Asian immigrants and by Western converts. Gender can be a hot topic among Western converts who are not comfortable with traditional Asian views of women's place, though some female converts feel feminism conflicts with their spiritual goals (Klein 1995). Other Westerners have embraced what is termed Engaged Buddhism—active involvement with the political and social needs of the larger community such as advocating for world peace and assisting the disadvantaged. Buddhism in the West is a complex of 2,500 years of practices and beliefs as preserved and modified by many different Asian cultures.


Bartholomeusz, Tessa J. 1994. Women under the Bō Tree: Buddhist Nuns in Sri Lanka. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Bode, Mabel. 1893. "Women Leaders of the Buddhist Reformation." Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society: 517-566, 763-798.

Cole, Alan. 1998. Mothers and Sons in Chinese Buddhism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Davidson, Ronald M. 2002. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York: Columbia University Press.

Falk, Nancy Auer. 1980. "The Case of the Vanishing Nuns: The Fruits of Ambivalence in Ancient Indian Buddhism." In Unspoken Worlds: Women's Religious Lives in Non-Western Cultures, ed. Nancy Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Faure, Bernard. 1998. The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Findly, Ellison Banks. 2003. Dana: Giving and Getting in Pali Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Gutschow, Kim. 2004. Being a Buddhist Nun: The Struggle for Enlightenment in the Himalayas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Horner, I. B., trans. 1938–1966. The Book of the Discipline. 6 vols. London: Oxford University Press.

Klein, Anne Carolyn. 1995. Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self. Boston: Beacon Press.

Norman, A. K., trans. 1971. The Elders' Verses. 2 vols. London: published for the Pali Text Society by Luzac & Co.

Pao-Chang, Shih, comp. 1994. Lives of the Nuns: Biographies of Chinese Buddhist Nuns from the Fourth to Sixth Centuries, trans. Katherine Ann Tsai. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Paul, Diana Y. 1985. Women in Buddhism: Images of the Feminine in the Mahāyāna Tradition. 2nd edition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ray, Reginald A. 1994. Buddhist Saints in India: A Study in Buddhist Values and Orientations. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schopen, Gregory. 1997. Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

Shaw, Miranda. 1994. Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sponberg, Alan. 1992. "Attitudes toward Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism." In Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender, ed. José Ignacio Cabezón. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Strong, John S. 1997. "A Family Quest: The Buddha, Yaśodharā, and Rāhula in the Mòlasarāstivāda Vinaya." In Sacred Biography in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia, ed. Juliane Schober. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

Tsomo, Karma Lekshe, ed. 1988. Sakyadhītā: Daughters of the Buddha. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.

Walters, Jonathan S. 1994. "A Voice from the Silence: The Buddha's Mother's Story." History of Religions 33(4): 358-379.

Young, Serinity. 1994. "Gendered Politics in Ancient Indian Asceticism." Union Seminary Quarterly Review 48(3-4): 73-92.

Young, Serinity. 2004. Courtesans and Tantric Consorts: Sexualities in Buddhist Narrative, Iconography, and Ritual. New York: Routledge.

Zelliot, Eleanor. 1992. "Buddhist Women of the Contemporary Maharashtrian Conversion Movement." In Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender, ed. José Ignacio Cabezón. Albany: State University of New York Press.

                                               Serinity Young


views updated May 23 2018


"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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f. matthew schobert jr. scott w. taylor


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Buddhism derives its name from the Sanskrit word buddha (awakened, wise, or learned), which was one of the many epithets given to Siddhārtha Gautama (c. 563c. 483 BCE), the founder of the set of theories and practices that are now called Buddhism. Traditional accounts of Gautama's life are more inspirational and hagiographical than historical in nature, and any attempt to extract a historical record from them is likely to prove frustrating, although the attempts of such authors as Hans Wolfgang Schumann (1989) and Michael Carrithers (1983) to find a credible story of Gautama's life are well worth reading.

According to traditional accounts Gautama left his wife and newborn child to seek his liberation from suffering and followed various teachers who ultimately failed to satisfy his needs. He then set out on his own and found the liberation he sought through meditation and self-discipline. At first disinclined to teach, because he felt his teachings would appeal to few people, he finally decided to tell others what he had discovered. Soon after his death, his disciples met and repeated all they could remember being taught by him, and these recollections were committed to memory. All the rules he had set down for the community of his disciples were collectively known as the vinaya. The collections of his other teachings on good character, contemplative exercises, and the theory behind them were known collectively as sutras. The vinaya and sutras supposedly collected shortly after Gautama's death became a closed canon for some Buddhists; other Buddhists eventually accepted as canonical a large corpus of other literature. Although there is a great deal of agreement between what is found in both the closed and extended canon, there is also a good deal of difference. In what follows, an attempt will be made to make note of where there is agreement and where there is divergence of opinion among Buddhists.

The epithet Buddha emphasizes Gautama's claim to have awakened, as if from a slumber, to seeing things as they really are. Another epithet commonly given to Gautama is jina (conqueror), which emphasizes his having overcome his internal enemies, the passions. In much of the Buddhist canonical literature Gautama refers to himself as Tathāgata, an epithet that has been explained in various ways by later Buddhists; one possible interpretation is that the Tathāgata knew the truth or understood things as they really are. Traditionally being a follower of Buddhism consists in going for refuge to the Buddha, the dharma (the goal of Buddhist practice), and the sangha (the community of virtuous people). In what follows, each of these terms will be discussed with reference to how understanding of them has changed down through the centuries.

The Buddha

During the time when the Buddha Gautama was alive, going for refuge to him meant becoming his disciple and agreeing to follow his teachings and the rules of his community. After his death, however, the meaning of going for refuge to the Buddha changed. The action came to mean making an effort to cultivate in oneself the virtues associated with buddhas in general, for the claim attributed to Gautama was that he was the most recent in a series of buddhas, all of whom had taught the same thing to the people of their generation and all of whom had had the same set of virtues. The set of virtues associated with buddhas are called the factors of awakening. Canonical texts always talk about thirty-seven mental factors that are required for awakening. These factors are the sum of seven different lists of wholesome mental qualities. When all redundant terms are eliminated from these lists, however, there are just ten different factors: wisdom, courage, concentration, mindfulness, inner joy, mental and emotional flexibility, equanimity, faith, right resolve, and good moral habit.

Wisdom is explained as understanding and discrimination, and it includes awareness of one's own body and mind, reflections on the inevitability of death, and recognition that all complex beings change and therefore are not worth striving for. Wisdom also entails realizing that no one is fully in control of one's own body, mind, or personality and that therefore these things are not really one's self, and none of them really belongs to anyone; rather, everything that comes into being is an essentially impersonal event. Because the factors conditioning any one event are beyond reckoning, no one can be in control of all of them; since it is possible to alter some of the conditions in one's life, however, discipline and practice are not in vain, however difficult they may be.

Courage consists in having the resolve and energy to do virtuous and wholesome actions that benefit oneself and others. Concentration is defined as having a healthy mentality focused on a single topic at a time. Mindfulness is defined as good memory, and especially recalling the importance of virtue in all situations and remembering to cultivate it. Inner joy is described as zest and enthusiasm for being virtuous and helping others do the same. Flexibility is defined as workability and pliability of one's thoughts and emotions, which are the opposite of intellectual and emotional rigidity, obsessiveness, and the tendency to pass judgment on others. Equanimity means indifference to pleasure and pain, and impartiality with respect to people. Faith is described as conviction and trust in the teachings of the Buddha as a result of experiencing the initial benefits of practicing what he taught. Right resolve consists in the resolve to cultivate wholesome and to eliminate unwholesome mental states. Good moral habit includes thinking, speaking, and acting in ways that conduce to the well-being of oneself and others, and it manifests in earning one's livelihood in ways that minimize damage done to other living beings and to their environment.

Even though it was considered possible for a person to cultivate all these virtues while living an ordinary family life, it was said to be much easier to succeed if one first renounced family life and lived alone or in a community of like-minded friends. For this reason, the ideal setting for Buddhist practice has nearly always been seen to be a monastery.

For the first several centuries in the history of Buddhism, the Buddha was venerated as a man who had been born an ordinary man and who had struggled to discover and eliminate the root causes of rebirth and its inevitable difficulties. After a long life of teaching others how to eliminate their own causes of rebirth, he died a serene death, knowing that he had helped many others to become awakened and liberated from their suffering. He likened himself to a physician who had studied the symptoms of a disease, made a diagnosis, and prescribed a course of treatment. Like a physician, he could only encourage his patients to take the necessary course of treatment; he could not do their work for them. After some five or six centuries, however, this description of the Buddha's career lost its appeal to many people, and new movements evolved within Buddhism that portrayed buddhas in importantly different ways.

One of the most influential of these new portrayals of what a buddha is appeared in a Mahayana Buddhist text, probably written in the second or third century CE, known as the Sutra of the White Lotus of the True Doctrine, commonly referred to simply as the Lotus Sutra. This complex and highly polemical text repudiates the earlier Buddhist doctrine that the Buddha was born, lived, and died, never again to be reborn in any form anywhere. The Lotus Sutra puts forth the view that all particular buddhas, including Gautama, are but manifestations of an eternal entity known as Shakyamuni Buddha, who is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly compassionate but otherwise beyond human comprehension. Shakyamuni Buddha, being transcendent, can be known to human beings only by taking human form. All the buddhas of the past, present, and future should be known to be manifestations of this cosmic buddha.

Moreover, the most important teaching of all these manifestations of Shakyamuni Buddha is that every sentient being in the universe is destined to become a fully enlightened buddha, for all beings, and not just those who are known now to be buddhas, are essentially one with the enlightened mind called Shakyamuni Buddha. Announcing this message in various ways, the Lotus Sutra pronounces harsh condemnation of those who teach that the goal of Buddhism is to attain nirvana, if that is understood as the end of the cycle of rebirths. Monks who teach that Buddha Gautama was an ordinary human being who achieved extraordinary things and that he eventually died never to be reborn, are denounced in the Lotus Sutra as charlatans and pseudo-Buddhists whose teachings could prevent others from attaining perfect enlightenment. The immediate destiny of such monks is a long and painful stay in hell, but even they, assures the Lotus Sutra, will eventually realize full and perfect enlightenment.

A second sort of new portrayal of a buddha figure is found in a genre of literature that has come to be known as Pure Land sutras. The term pure land is a translation of a Chinese expression that is in turn an interpretation of a Sanskrit expression that means "a happy land" or "a land of ease." The principal innovation in this genre of sutras is the notion that there are buddhas who attained buddhahood only after amassing an incalculable amount of merit through austerities and good works. After attaining buddhahood these buddhas used their merit to create realms in which all the distractions posed by hardships are unknown so that inhabitants of these realms could devote all their energy to cultivating virtue and striving for nirvana. People from our burdensome world are said to be able to gain entry in one of these realms of ease simply by calling on the name of the buddha who created it.

By far the most popular of these buddhas was Amitābha, whose name means "he whose light is unmeasured." The invocation of Amitābha's name became one of the most common practices among Buddhists in East Asia. In some places, and especially in Japan, some followers of the Lotus Sutra held Amitābha (Amida in Japanese) practitioners in contempt because of the latter's reluctance to regard Amitābha as a manifestation of Shakyamuni. The various views that Buddhists have held on what exactly the nature of a buddha is have been described in detail and with considerable philosophical refinement by Paul J. Griffiths in On Being Buddha: The Classical Doctrine of Buddhahood (1994).

The Dharma

Those who followed the closed canon of Buddhist texts teach that the dharma to which a Buddhist goes for refuge is nirvana, which is seen as the ultimate goal of all Buddhist practice and theory. Ultimately, nirvana is defined as the cessation of rebirth after one's present life comes to an end, but the term also refers to the cessation of psychological afflictions while one is still alive. The principal afflictions discussed in Buddhist teachings are greed, hatred, and delusion. Greed is understood broadly as all craving for material possessions, physical and psychological comforts, physical and psychological pleasures, celebrity, approval, and anything that one regards as desirable. Hatred includes irritation, resistance, anger, and any sort of aversion or wish for dissociation from something. Delusion includes any sort of misunderstanding or misjudgment that could result in unsuccessful action.

These three root afflictions are said to be the principal causes of all distress and discontent. Eliminating them results in being content with whatever situation that may present itself. In many Buddhist texts it is said that contentment arises not merely from the absence of afflictions but from the presence of their opposites. Thus, when greed is replaced by generosity, hatred by love, and delusion by wisdom, then one is truly contented, and when these replacements are permanent, then one has attained liberation from suffering in this life.

While the dharma to which a Buddhist goes for refuge is nirvana, the term dharma also refers to virtue in general and to anything, such as teachings and practices, that help one to cultivate virtue. The most important of the virtues is wisdom, since it plays a role in the cultivation of all other virtues. Wisdom is said to arise in three stages. The first stage consists in learning what wise people have said and how they have acted. The second consists in reflecting on what one has learned through study. And the third consists in realizing in one's own life what the wise people of the past have discussed. This third stage includes a variety of contemplative exercises that have been designed to improve a person's mentality. For each of the virtues discussed earlier as those associated with buddhas, specific meditative exercises have been designed.

In canonical Buddhism the attainment of nirvana is usually described as incremental. The analogy most frequently used is that one's mentality is like gold ore, which is a mixture of precious metal and various unwanted minerals. Refining ore to get pure gold requires a gradual elimination of the unwanted minerals through various chemical and mechanical processes. Similarly, one's mentality is a mixture of wholesome and unwholesome habits that mute the effectiveness of the wholesome traits. Refining one's character requires the gradual elimination of bad habits through study, reflection, and cultivation, and the culmination of all this refinement is nirvana. In some forms of later Buddhism, however, a different conception of nirvana arose. In this new view nirvana, understood not as the mere absence of affliction but as the constant presence of tranquillity, lucidity, and bliss, is the fundamental nature of all things. Thus, all consciousness is fundamentally calm, lucid, and contented, and the so-called afflictions are temporary obscurations of that lucidity. The most common analogy for this view of nirvana is that of the sun, which shines all the time but is sometimes temporarily obscured by clouds. In this view of consciousness the condition of enlightenment is innate and permanent.

Nirvana, therefore, is not the cessation of existence but the realization that consciousness is beginningless and endless and constantly tranquil. In some forms of this doctrine it is said that ultimately there is only one mind, namely, the Buddha's; all apparently individual minds are but episodes of this one Buddha mind. Since the Buddha's mind can only be wholesome, it follows that all those who are apparently individuals are also wholesome, and all mental events, including those called unwholesome or vicious are in fact virtuous. Delusion, then consists in a failure to recognize the innate wholesomeness of all existence. In some formulations of this position delusion consists in thinking in terms of oppositions at all; thus, it is delusional to think in terms of the contrast between virtue and vice, wholesomeness and unwholesomeness, delusion and wisdom, liberation and bondage, buddha and ordinary person, and so forth.

The Sangha

The word sangha means "community." The community to which a Buddhist goes for refuge is the so-called noble (ārya-sangha ) community, which comprises all those who have reached one of the four stages leading to and including nirvana. Since it is seen as nearly impossible for an individual to make the necessary refinements in character that lead to nirvana, it is considered almost essential for one to keep company with virtuous people who will understand and support one's resolve to cultivate virtue and attain nirvana. In the hopes of providing a community of people dedicated to virtue and thus providing a noble sangha, the Buddha Gautama founded a monastic community as well as a community of lay disciples. Ideally, these formal communities should include enough members of the noble community to be of benefit to the world as a whole, and so to help these visible communities not only to be virtuous but also to be seen to be virtuous, Gautama set forth various sets of precepts. Lay disciples are expected to refrain from five harmful activities: killing, stealing, sexual transgressions, lying, and intoxication. Novitiates seeking ordination into the monastic community are expected to refrain from ten harmful actions and thoughts: the first four of the five expected of the laity plus refraining from harsh speech, gossip, frivolous speech, attachment, anger, and false views. Monastics are expected to observe more than two hundred vows, depending on which monastic order they belong to. Four of those vows are considered so important that any person who breaks them is dismissed from the monastic order for the rest of his or her life; these four vows are refraining from killing a human being, from the theft of anything that human beings regard as property, from any kind of sexual intercourse with any other being living or dead, and from making false claims about one's spiritual attainments.

The study of the monastic rules (vinaya) suggests that the principal purposes of the monastic community were twofold: to provide an ideal environment for individuals to cultivate virtue and to serve as a visible community that demonstrated to the society at large that a life of material simplicity dedicated to the cultivation of virtue and self-contentment is far more satisfactory than a life of material acquisitiveness dedicated to seeking possessions and the approval of others. Taking monastic vows is not seen as necessary for the attainment of nirvana, but is seen rather as the taking on of responsibilities to be of service to society at large. Some scholastics favor the view, based on passages in canonical texts, that, while it is not necessary to be a monastic to attain nirvana, it is impossible for anyone who has attained nirvana to remain a lay person for more than one day. Others, however, take the view that renunciation is itself a kind of attachment and that a liberated person would be able to live a normal lay life without becoming either attached to or afraid of its pleasures. This latter attitude can be found in many Buddhist movements within East Asia, and especially Japan, and in some movements in Tibetan Buddhism.

The Buddha Gautama made several observations about statecraft. He made these observations by telling stories, which often had a satirical edge. One attitude that emerges in these stories is that government came into human society at a time when morality was breaking down, and, since government was devised by people living in morally broken down cultures, government is itself as likely to exacerbate the problem as alleviate it. That notwithstanding, those whose task is to provide governance can sometimes benefit by the counsel of wise people, although not all governments are equally willing to heed wise counsel.

In his own instructions to kings, Gautama urged them, above all else, to provide to all citizens the means to earn their own livelihoods. This could best be achieved by taxing the wealthy and distributing resources to the needy and by educating the unskilled. A king who fails to do these things, said Gautama, is most likely to bring about a society in which the poor have no means of living other than stealing from the wealthy, and the wealthy then hire guardians to protect their wealth. This situation in turn leads to both the thieves and the mercenary guardians arming themselves to protect themselves against one another, and it leads to the wealthy seeking ever stricter laws and more severe punishments, until nearly everyone is armed and afraid. As fear and suspicion grows, violence increases, and as violence increases, the life expectancy of people declines. Eventually, said Gautama, the decline will become so dramatic that most people will die only shortly after reaching the age of reproduction, and children will be left to raise themselves, and morality will become so rare that people will have forgotten even the word virtue, let alone know what it stands for. All this can be avoided by governments that are more interested in protecting the poor than in serving the wealthy, said Gautama, and such governments are more likely to occur if wise and learned men and women remain actively engaged in society. Even monks who have renounced the family life should take an interest in providing wise counsel to governments. The ideal of providing selfless service to one's society was particularly emphasized in some of the Mahayana sutras that came into prominence in the first several centuries CE.

The entire philosophy of Buddhism is traditionally summarized in a formula called the four noble truths: (1) all forms of existence involve some suffering, (2) suffering arises because of unrealistic expectations, (3) suffering can be eliminated by eliminating unrealistic expectations, and (4) there is a method to be followed to eliminate them. The method itself is summarized in the formula: "Do what is beneficial, avoid doing harm, and keep the mind pure."

See also BuddhismSchools: Chan and Zen; BuddhismSchools: Dge-lugs; BuddhismSchools: Hua yan; BuddhismSchools: Madhyamika; BuddhismSchools: Yogacara; Buddhist Epistemology.


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Richard P. Hayes (2005)

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