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A replica of an ancient statue found among the ruins of a temple at Sarnath
A replica of an ancient statue found among the ruins of a temple at Sarnath
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Buddhism is a philosophy based on the teachings of the Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, a prince of the Shakyas, whose lifetime is traditionally given as 566 to 486 BCE. It had subsequently been accepted by many as a religion. Buddhism gradually spread from India throughout Asia to Central Asia, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Southeast Asia, as well as to East Asian countries such as China, Korea, and Japan.

With approximately 560 million followers, Buddhism is considered a major world religion.

The aim of Buddhist practice is to end the suffering of cyclic existence, samsara (Pāli, Sanskrit), by awakening the practitioner to the realization of true reality, the achievement of liberation (nirvana). To achieve this, one should purify and train the mind and act according to the laws of karma, of cause and effect: perform positive actions, and positive results will follow, and vice versa.

Buddhist morality is underpinned by the principles of harmlessness and moderation. Mental training focuses on moral discipline (sila), meditative concentration (samadhi), and wisdom (prajñā).

While Buddhism does not deny the existence of supernatural beings (indeed, many are discussed in Buddhist scripture), it does not ascribe power for creation, salvation or judgment to them. Like humans, they are regarded as having the power to affect worldly events, and so some Buddhist schools associate with them via ritual.


What is a Buddha?

A stone image of the Buddha.
A stone image of the Buddha.

Buddha is a word in ancient Indian languages including Pāli and Sanskrit which means "one who has awakened". It is derived from the verbal root "budh", meaning "to awaken" or "to be enlightened", and "to comprehend". It is written in devanagari script as Hindi: बुद्ध and pronounced as "bυd-dhə", where both 'd' and 'dh' are dental, and 'dh' is an aspirated stop.

The word "Buddha" denotes not just the historical Buddha Shakyamuni or Siddhartha Gautama who lived some 2,500 years ago, but a type of person, of which there have been many throughout the course of time. (As an analogy, the term "President" refers not just to one person, but to everyone who has ever held the office of presidency.) The historical Buddha is one member of the spiritual lineage of Buddhas, which extends beyond history into the past and into the indefinite future.

Shakyamuni Buddha did not claim any divine status for himself, nor did he assert that he was inspired by a god or gods. A Buddha is anyone who has fully awakened to the true nature of existence, liberated from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, has eradicated all negative qualities and developed all positive qualities, possibly including omniscience. (Buddhas do not claim to be omnipotent, unlike the God of Christianity, Islam or Judaism.) All sentient beings (beings with a mind, like humans and animals) can free themselves from suffering as Gautama did, regardless of age, sex, or caste.

The principles by which a person can achieve enlightenment are known as the Bauddhadharma, or simply — the Dharma, meaning (in this context) "law, doctrine, or truth". All three Indic religions — Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism are called as Arya Dharmas, meaning noble religions.


The Great Sanchi Stupa in Madhya Pradesh, India.

As with any history so old, there are many different stories of how the Buddha came to be, Siddhārtha Gautama (Sanskrit सिद्धार्थ गौतम, pronounced as "sιd-dhα:rthə gautəmə"; in Pāli, Siddhattha Gautama) made his way to enlightenment. Since he belonged to the Shākya clan, he is also known as Shākyamunī.

One legend (the most commonly accepted by historians) has it that he was born around 566 BCE. His birthplace is said to be Lumbini in the Shākya state, one of a small group of old oligarchic republics in what is now Nepal. His father was the Shākya king Śuddhodana, and Siddhārtha lived in luxury, being spared all hardship.

The legends say that a seer predicted shortly after his birth that Siddhārtha would become either a great king or a great holy man; because of this, the king tried to make sure that Siddhartha never had any cause for dissatisfaction with his life, as that might drive him toward a spiritual path. Nevertheless, at the age of 29, he came across what has become known as the Four Passing Sights: an old crippled man, a sick man, a decaying corpse, and finally a wandering holy man. These four sights led him to the realization that birth, old age, sickness and death come to everyone, not only once but repeated for life after life in succession since beginningless time. He decided to abandon his worldly life, leaving behind his wife, child and rank, etc. to take up the life of a wandering holy man in search of the answer to the problem of birth, old age, sickness, and death.

Indian holy men (sādhus), in those days just as today, often engaged in a variety of ascetic practices designed to "mortify" the flesh. It was thought that by enduring pain and suffering, the ātman (Sanskrit; Pāli: atta) or "soul" became free from the cycle of rebirth with its pain and sorrow. Siddhārtha proved adept at these practices, and was able to surpass his teachers. However, he found no solution to end all Suffering and so, leaving behind his teachers, he and a small group of companions set out to take their austerities even further. After six years of ascetism, and nearly starving himself to death with no success (some sources claim that he nearly drowned), Siddhārtha began to reconsider his path. Then he remembered a moment in childhood in which he had been watching his father start the season's plowing, and he had fallen into a naturally concentrated and focused state in which time seemed to stand still, and which was blissful and refreshing.

Taking a little buttermilk from a passing goatherd, he found a large tree (now called the Bodhi tree) and set to meditating. He developed a new way of meditating, which began to bear fruit. His mind became concentrated and pure, and then, after six years since he began his quest in search of a solution to an end of Suffering, he attained Enlightenment, and became a Buddha. This place is in the state of Bihar in India.

The Buddha venerated by Indra and Brahma, Kanishka casket, dated to 127 CE, British Museum.
The Buddha venerated by Indra and Brahma, Kanishka casket, dated to 127 CE, British Museum.

According to one of the stories in the Āyācana Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya VI.1), a scripture found in the Pāli and other canons, immediately after his Enlightenment the Buddha was wondering whether or not he should teach the Dharma. He was concerned that, as human beings were overpowered by greed, hatred and delusion, they wouldn't be able to see the true Dharma which was subtle, deep and hard to understand. Two gods, Brahma Sahampati and Indra, interceded, and asked that the Buddha teach the Dharma to the world, saying, "There will be those who will understand the Dharma". With his great compassion, the Buddha agreed to become a teacher. At the Deer Park near Benares in northern India he set in motion the Wheel of Dharma by delivering his first sermon to the group of five companions with whom he sought for enlightenment before. They, together with Buddha, formed the first sangha, the company of Buddhist monks.

In other versions of his life-story, the Buddha leaves home in the "prime of his youth", his parents weeping and wailing all the while.

The state of Shākya, where he was born, was an oligarchic republic at that time, so there was no royal family of which to speak. Therefore, it is believed that the Buddha's father was not a king in the sense of an absolute ruler, but rather an influential tribal figure. However, regardless of the details of his early life, the evidence strongly indicates that the Buddha was indeed a historical person living in approximately the same time and place in which he is traditionally placed.

It has also been advanced that the influence of Jain culture and philosophy in ancient Bihar may have given rise to Buddhism although such views are uneasy to ascertain. While Buddhist scriptures describe various penances (tapas) undertaken by Gautama Siddhartha which appear identical to Jain penances (e.g., cupping the hands to consume alms, plucking of hair, the penance by five fires, etc. ), these practises were renounced by the Buddha indicating explicitly that they do not lead to Nirvana (Final Liberation). Buddhist writings reflect that Jainism was an already established faith -- rather than a newly founded or reformist one -- by the time Buddha lived. The Majjhima Nikaya relates instances of Buddha having dialogues with followers of the Nigantha (Jain) community, often resulting in the latter's voluntary adoption of Buddha as his teacher. (See also Jainism)

In many instances, both philosophies continue to share similar Prakrit terminology for important themes and teachings but differ significantly in the interpretations in its meaning. This method of teaching adopted by the Buddha points to the pragmatic aspect of Buddha's style of teaching wherein the Buddha uses words and terms that are familiar to the audience instead of introducing new and complex technical jargon. In this way, Buddhism appeals to people from all walks of life, without linguistic barriers that make learning difficult in some other archaic system that emphasises the letter more than the message itself.

Principles of Buddhism

Refuge in The Three Jewels

Symbol of the Three Jewels (triratna), surmounted by a Dharma wheel, on a "footprint" of the Buddha, 1st century, Gandhara.
Symbol of the Three Jewels (triratna), surmounted by a Dharma wheel, on a "footprint" of the Buddha, 1st century, Gandhara.

Buddhists seek refuge in what are often referred to as the Three Jewels, Triple Gem or Triple Jewel. These are the Buddha, the Dharma (or Dhamma), and the "noble" (Sanskrit: arya) Sangha or community of monks and nuns (sometimes all other buddhists are included). While it is impossible to escape one's karma or the effects caused by previous thoughts, words and deeds, it is possible to avoid the suffering that comes from it by becoming enlightened. In this way, dharma offers a refuge. Dharma, used in the sense of the Buddha's teachings, provides a raft (method) and is thus a temporary refuge while entering and crossing the river. However, the real refuge (of enlightenment) is on the other side of the river.

To someone who is seeking to become enlightened, taking refuge constitutes a continuing commitment to pursuing enlightenment and following in the footsteps of the people who have followed the path to enlightenment before. It contains an element of confidence that enlightenment is in fact a refuge, a supreme resort. Many Buddhists take the refuges each day, often more than once in order to remind themselves of what they are doing and to direct their resolve inwardly towards liberation.

In all forms of Buddhism, refuge in the Three Jewels are taken before the Sangha for the first time, as a part of the conversion ritual. However, the personal choice for taking ones' life-path in this direction is more important than any external ritual.

It is good to note that in Buddhism, the word "refuge" should often not be taken in the English sense of "hiding" or "escape"; instead, many scholars have said, it ought be thought of as a homecoming, or place of healing, much as a parent's home might be a refuge for someone. This simple misunderstanding has led some Western scholars to conclude that Buddhism is "a religion for sticking one's head in the sand", when most Buddhists would assert quite the opposite. On the other hand, the main goal of Buddhism is to escape from the suffering of cyclic existence. Some translators also translate it as "taking safe direction".

See also: Three Jewels

The Four Noble Truths

The Buddha taught that life was dissatisfactory because of craving, but that this condition was curable by following the Eightfold Path. This teaching is called the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Dukkha: All worldly life is unsatisfactory, disjointed, containing suffering.
  2. Samudaya: There is a cause of suffering, which is attachment or desire (tanha) rooted in ignorance.
  3. Nirodha: There is an end of suffering, which is Nirvana.
  4. Maggo: There is a path that leads out of suffering, known as the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Cause of Suffering

The central theory of Buddhist philosophy that explains the cause of suffering is Pratītyasamutpāda (in Sanskrit). It is written in devanagari as Hindi: प्रतीत्यसमुत्पाद and pronounced as "prətītyə səmυtpα:də". It means that everything in the world, including the soul, is only relative and momentary. It literally means "origin of an action". The action is not independent but depends upon its cause, hence the famous Karma theory. The soul (not in the sense of an everlasting reality) goes through an eternal cycle of births and deaths because it undergoes through a series of following twelve:

(1) Ignorance or Avidyā, (2) Impressions or Samskāra, (3) Consciousness or Vijñāna, (4) Mind-Body Organism or Nāma Rūpa, (5) Six Senses or ŞaDāyatana, (6) Sense contact or Sparsha, (7) Sense Experience or Vedanā, (8) Craving or Tŗişhņa, (9) Mental Clinging or Upādāna, (10) Will to be born or Bhāva, (11) Rebirth or Jāti, and finally (12) Suffering or Jarā-maraņa.

Buddhism says that each of these causes give effect to the next one, till the twelvth cause recurring to the first. This cycle or births and deaths cannot be severed until one attains Nirvana.

Note that the names are given in Sanskrit and their English meanings are only approximate.

The Noble Eightfold Path

Main article: Noble Eightfold Path

Buddhist monk Geshe Konchog Wangdu reads Mahayana sutras from an old woodblock copy of the Tibetan Kanjur.
Buddhist monk Geshe Konchog Wangdu reads Mahayana sutras from an old woodblock copy of the Tibetan Kanjur.

In order to fully understand the noble truths and investigate whether they were in fact true, Buddha recommended that a certain lifestyle or path be followed which consists of:

  1. Right Understanding
  2. Right Thought
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

Sometimes in the Pāli Canon the Noble Eightfold Path is spoken of as being a progressive series of stages through which the practitioner moves, the culmination of one leading to the beginning of another, but it is more usual to view the stages of the 'Path' as requiring simultaneous development.

The Eightfold Path essentially consists of meditation, following the precepts, and cultivating the positive converse of the precepts (e.g. benefiting living beings is the converse of the first precept of harmlessness). The Path may also be thought of as a way of developing śīla, meaning mental and moral discipline.

The Five Precepts

The Buddha statue Aukana, in Sri Lanka
The Buddha statue Aukana, in Sri Lanka

Buddhists undertake certain precepts as aids on the path to coming into contact with ultimate reality. Hence, they are also known as Training rules. Laypeople generally undertake (at least one of) five precepts. The Five Precepts are not given in the form of commands such as "thou shalt not ...", but rather are promises to oneself: "I will (try) to...".

The five precepts are:

  1. To refrain from harming living creatures (killing).
  2. To refrain from taking that which is not freely given (stealing).
  3. To refrain from sexual misconduct.
  4. To refrain from incorrect speech (lying, harsh language, slander, idle chit-chat).
  5. To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness.

This difference stems from the rationale behind them. While other religions institutes commandments and is based on the wishes or commands of a divine being, Buddhist precepts are based more on common sense that the Buddha highlights to Buddhists. Just as we would not want to be killed, others, cherishing their own life would not want to be killed. Hence we should not engage in harming or killing others. The same rationale applies to the latter 3 precepts.

The last precept involving refrain from intoxicants is unique in that the act of taking intoxicants itself is commonly not seen as an immediate or direct harm towards others. Instead it may serve as the catalyst for further acts of transgression against others in terms of either a single or possible combination of any of the first four precepts. The daily news will ascertain for us that there are daily crimes and accidents around the world that result from taking of alcohol or other forms of intoxicants, many of which could have been avoided if only this training rule is observed.

In addition to the indirect effects of intoxicants is the direct impact that intoxicants have, of dulling the mind. Mindfulness, a central teaching in Buddhism, builds upon our ability to train our mind and develop it to its fullest potential of enlightenment, whereas taking of intoxicants runs counter to that and impedes mindfulness by allowing dullness and heedlessness of the mind.

The other distinguishing feature of the Buddhist precepts is that they are wider-ranging in implication than the "commandments" of some other religions. The first precept, against killing, for example, forbids the killing of animals as well as humans (but see #Vegetarianism). Furthermore, in Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddha indicates how all-inclusive the injunction against killing is, saying (in The Scripture of Brahma's Net):

"Disciples of the Buddha, should you yourself kill, wilfully cause another to kill, encourage someone to kill, extol killing, take pleasure in seeing killing take place, deliberately wish someone dead, intentionally cause death, supply the instruments or means for killing, cut off a life even when sanctioned by law, that is, participate in any way in killing, you are committing a serious offense warranting exclusion. Pray, do not intentionally kill anything whatsoever which has life."

It should also be noted that the literal, and possibly original, meaning of the third precept covers more than the now generally standard meaning "sexual misconduct" and actually involves refraining from "wrong indulgence in all sensory pleasures".

In some schools of Buddhism, serious lay people or aspiring monks take an additional three to five ethical precepts, and some of the five precepts are strengthened. For example, the precept pertaining to sexual misconduct becomes a precept of celibacy. Fully ordained monks and nuns of the Theravada school also observe 227 and 311 patimokkha training rules respectively, while Fully ordained Mahayana monks and nuns observe 250 and 348 equivalent training rules respectively and also an additional set of, generally, 41 bodhisattva vows.

See also: Pancasila and Buddha Statues of Bamiyan

The three marks of conditioned existence

According to the Buddhist tradition, all phenomena (dharmas) are marked by three characteristics, sometimes referred to as the Dharma seals:

  • Anicca
  • Dukkha
  • Anatta

  • Anicca (Pāli; Sanskrit: anitya): All compounded phenomena (things and experiences) are inconstant, unsteady, and impermanent. (Practically) everything is made up of parts, and is dependent on the right conditions for its existence. Everything is in constant flux, and so conditions and the thing itself is constantly changing. Things are constantly coming into being, and ceasing to be. Nothing lasts.
Important point here is that phenomena arises and ceases according to (complex) conditions and not according to our whims and fancy. While we have limited ability to effect change to our possessions and surroundings, experience tells us that our feeble attempts are not guarantee that the results of our efforts will be to our likings. More often than not, the results fall short of our expectations.

  • Dukkha (Pāli; Sanskrit: duḥkha): "Whatever is impermanent is subject to change. Whatever is subject to change is subject to suffering" - The Buddha.
Striving for what we desire, we may experience stress and suffering. Getting what we desired, we may find delight and happiness. Soon after, the novelty may wear out and we may get bored with it. Boredom is a form of disatisfaction (or suffering) and to escape from it, we divert ourselves from such boredom by indulging in a pursuit of new forms of pleasure. Sometimes not willing to relinquish objects that we are already disinterested in, we start to collect and amass possessions instead of sharing with others who may have better use in it than we do. Boredom is a result of change. Change of our interest in that object of desire that so captivated us in the first place.
If we do not get bored already, then change may instead occur in the object of desire. Silverware may become tarnished, a new dress worn thin or a gadget gone obsolete. Or it may become broken, causing us to grieve. In some cases it may get lost or stolen. In some cases, we may worry about such losses even before it happens. Husbands and wives worry about losing their spouses even though their partners are faithful. Unfortunately, sometimes our very worry and fear drives us to act irrationally, resulting in distrust and breaking up of the very relationship that we cherished so much.
While we like changes like becoming an adult when we are in our teens, we dislike the change called aging. While we strive for change to become rich, we fear the change of retrenchment. We are selective in our attitude towards the transient nature of our very existence. Unfortunately, this transient nature is unselective. We can try to fight it, just as many have tried since beginningless time, only to have our efforts washed away through the passages of time. As a result, we continually experience dissatisfaction or suffering due to the very impermanence of compounded phenomena.

  • Anatta (Pāli; Sanskrit: anātman): In Indian philosophy, the concept of a self is called ātman (that is, "soul" or metaphysical self), which refers to an unchanging, permanent essence conceived by virtue of existence. This concept and the related concept of Brahman, the Vedantic monistic ideal, which was regarded as an ultimate ātman for all beings, were indispensable for mainstream Indian metaphysics, logic, and science; for all apparent things there had to be an underlying and persistent reality, akin to a Platonic form. The Buddha rejected all concepts of ātman, emphasizing not permanence, but changeability. He taught that all concepts of a substantial personal self were incorrect, and formed in the realm of ignorance. However, in a number of major Mahayana sutras (e.g. the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Tathagatagarbha Sutra, the Srimala Sutra, among others), the Buddha is presented as clarifying this teaching by saying that, while the skandhas (constituents of the ordinary body and mind) are not the Self, there does truly exist an eternal, unchanging, blissful Buddha-essence in all sentient beings, which is the uncreated and deathless Buddha-nature ("Buddha-dhatu") or "True Self" of the Buddha himself. This immaculate Buddhic Self (atman) is in no way to be construed as a mundane, impermanent, suffering "ego", of which it is the diametrical opposite. On the other hand, this Buddha-essence or Buddha-nature is also often explained as the potential for achieving Buddhahood, rather than an existing phenomenon one can grasp onto as being me or self. It is the opposite of a personalised, samsaric "I" or "mine". The paradox is that as soon as the Buddhist practitioner tries to grasp at this inner Buddha potency and cling to it as though it were his or her ego writ large, it proves elusive. It does not "exist" in the time-space conditioned and finite mode in which mundane things are bodied forth. It is presented by the Buddha in the relevant sutras as ultimately inexplicable, primordially present Reality itself - the living potency for Buddhahood inside all beings. It is finally revealed (in the last of the Buddha's Mahayana sutras, the Nirvana Sutra) not as the circumscribed "non-self", the clinging ego (which is indeed anatta/anatman), but as the ever-enduring, egoless Great Self or Dharmakaya of the Buddha.
The scriptural evidence of the Nikāyas and Āgamas is ambivalent with regard to the Buddha's reported views on the existence or otherwise of a permanent self (ātman/atta). Though he is clearly reported to have criticized many of the heterodox concepts concerning an eternal personal self and to have denied the existence of an eternal self with regards to any of the constituent elements (skandha) of a being, he is nevertheless not reported to have explictly denied the existence of a non-personal, permanent self, contrary to the popular, orthodox view of the Buddha's teachings. Moreover, when the Buddha predicates "anātman" (anatta) with regards to the constituents of a being, there is a grammatical ambivalence in the use of the term. The most natural interpretation is that he is simply stating that "the constituents are not the self" rather than "the constituents are devoid of self". This ambivalence was to prove troublesome to Buddhists after the Buddha's passing. Some of the major schools of Buddhism that developed subsequently maintained the former interpretation, but other influential schools adopted the latter interpretation and took measures to establish their view as the orthodox Buddhist position. One such proponent of this hard-line "no self" position was the monk Nagasena, who appears in the Questions of King Milinda, composed during the period of the Hellenistic Bactrian kingdoms of the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE. In this text, Nagasena demonstrates the concept of absolute 'no self' by likening human beings to a chariot and challenges King Milinda to find the essence of the chariot. Nagasena states that just as a chariot is made up of a number of things, none of which are the essence of the chariot in isolation, without the other pieces, similarly no one part of a person is a permanent entity; we can be broken up into five constituents - body, sensations, ideation, mental formations and consciousness - the consciousness being closest to the permanent idea of 'self', but is ever-changing with each new thought according to this viewpoint.
According to some thinkers both in the East and the West, the doctrine of "non-Self", may imply that Buddhism is a form of nihilism or something similar. However, as thinkers like Nagarjuna have clearly pointed out, Buddhism is not simply a rejection of the concept of existence (or of meaning, etc.) but of the hard and fast distinction between existence and nonexistence, or rather between being and nothingness. Phenomena are not independent from causes and conditions, and do not exist as isolated things as we perceive them to be. Philosophers such as Nāgārjuna stress that the lack of a permanent, unchanging, substantial self in beings and things does not mean that they do not experience growth and decay on the relative level. But on the ultimate level of analysis, one cannot distinguish an object from its causes and conditions, or even object and subject. (This is an idea appearing relatively recently in Western science.) Buddhism thus has much more in common with Western empiricism, pragmatism, and anti-foundationalism than with nihilism.
In the Nikāyas, the Buddha and his disciples are commonly found to ask in question or declare "Is that which is impermanent, subject to change, subject to suffering fit to be considered thus: 'This I am, this is mine, this is my self'?" The question which the Buddha posts to his audience is whether compounded phenomena is fit to be considered as self, in which the audience agrees that it is unworthy to be considered so. And in relinquishing such an attachment to compounded phenomena, such a person gives up delight, desire and craving for compounded phenomena and is unbounded by its change. When completely free from attachments, craving or desire to the five aggregates, such a person experiences then transcends the very causes of suffering.
In this way, the insight wisdom or prajñā of non-self gives rise to cessation of suffering, and not an intellectual debate over whether a self exist or not.

It is by realizing (not merely understanding intellectually, but making real in one's experience) the three marks of conditioned existence that one develops prajñā, which is the antidote to the ignorance that lies at the root of all suffering.

See also: three marks of existence

Buddha-dhatu ("Buddha-Principle", "Buddha-nature")

The Buddha's Mahayana doctrines contain a set of "ultimate" (nitartha) teachings on the immanence of a hidden core reality within all sentient beings which is linked to the eternality of the Buddha and Nirvana. This immanent yet transcendent essence is variously called, in the key tathagatagarbha sutras which expound it, the Buddha-dhatu ("Buddha-element", Buddha-nature) or the Tathagatagarbha. This Buddha-dhatu is empty of all that is contingent, painful and impermanent. In the Nirvana Sutra, it is called by the Buddha the "True Self" (to distinguish it from the "false" worldly self of the five skandhas). It is no less than the unfabricated, uncreated, uncompounded, immaculate, immortal, all-knowing, radiantly shining Principle of blissful Buddhahood - the very Dharmakaya,Dhammakaya法身. This Tathagatagarbha/ Buddha-dhatu, inherent in all beings, can never be destroyed or harmed, and yet is concealed from view by a mass of obscuring mental and moral taints within the mind-stream of the individual being. Once the Buddha-dhatu is finally seen and known by the faithful Buddhist practitioner, it has the power to transform that seer and knower into a Buddha. The doctrine of the Tathagatagarbha/Buddha-dhatu is stated by the Buddha of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra to be the "absolutely final culmination" of his Dharma.

Other principles and practices

  • Meditation or dhyāna of some form is a common practice in most if not all schools of Buddhism, for the clergy if not the laity.
  • Central to Buddhist doctrine and practice is the law of karma and vipaka; action and its fruition, which happens within the dynamic of dependent origination (pratītya-samutpāda). Actions which result in positive retribution (happiness) are defined as skillful or good, while actions that produce negative results (suffering) are called unskillful or bad actions. These actions are expressed by the way of mind, body or speech. Some actions bring instant retribution while the results of other actions may not appear until a future lifetime. Most teachers are, however, quick to point out that though it may be a result of someone's past-life karma that they suffer, this should not be used as an excuse to treat them poorly; indeed, all should help them and help to alleviate their suffering, leading to them working to alleviate their own suffering.
  • Rebirth, which is closely related to the law of karma. An action in this life may not give fruit or reaction until the next life time. This being said, action in a past life takes effect in this one, making a chain of existence. The full realization of the absence of an eternal self or soul (the doctrine of anatta (Pāli; Sanskrit: anātman)) breaks this cycle of birth and death (samsara).


The first lay precept in Buddhism prohibits killing. Many see this as implying that Buddhists should not eat the meat of animals. However, this is not necessarily the case. The Buddha made distinction between killing an animal and consumption of meat, stressing that it is immoral conduct that makes one impure, not the food one eats. In one of the Pali sutras belonging to the Theravada lineage of Buddhism, the Buddha says that vegetarianism is preferable, but as monks in ancient India were expected to receive all their food by begging they had little or no control over their diet. Furthermore, the Buddha did not wish to lay an extra burden on his lay followers by demanding that their food should be vegetarian. During the Buddha's time, there was no general rule requiring monks to refrain from eating meat. In fact, at one point the Buddha specifically refused to institute vegetarianism and the Pali Canon records the Buddha himself eating meat on several occasions. There were, however, rules prohibiting certain types of meat, such as human, leopard and elephant meat. Monks are also prohibited from consuming an animal if they have witnessed its death or know it was killed specifically for them. This rule was not applied to the commercial purchase of meat in the case of a general who sent a servant to purchase meat specifically to feed the Buddha. Therefore, eating commercially purchased meat is not prohibited.

On the other hand, the Buddha in certain Mahayana sutras strongly denounces the eating of meat. In the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha states that "the eating of meat extinguishes the seed of great compassion", adding that all and every kind of meat and fish consumption (even of animals already found dead) is prohibited by him. The Buddha also predicts in this sutra that later monks will "hold spurious writings to be the authentic Dharma" and will concoct their own sutras and mendaciously claim that the Buddha allows the eating of meat, whereas in fact (he says) he does not. A long passage in the Lankavatara Sutra shows the Buddha weighing strongly in favor of vegetarianism, since the eating of the flesh of fellow sentient beings is said by him to be incompatible with the compassion that a Bodhisattva should strive to cultivate. Several other Mahayana sutras also emphatically prohibit the consumption of meat.

A solution to this problem was provided when monks from the Indian sphere of influence migrated to China, as of the year 65 CE. There they met followers who provided them with money instead of food. From those days onwards Chinese monastics, and others who came to inhabit northern countries, cultivated their own vegetable plots and bought food in the market.

In the modern world, attitudes toward vegetarianism vary by location. In the Theravada countries of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, monks are bound by the vinaya to accept almost any food that is offered to them, often including meat, while in China and Vietnam monks are expected to eat no meat. In Japan and Korea, some monks practice vegetarianism, and most will do so at least when training at a monastery, but otherwise they typically do eat meat. In Tibet, where vegetable nutrition is historically very scarce, and the adopted vinaya was the Nikaya Sarvāstivāda, vegetarianism is very rare, although the Dalai Lama and other esteemed lamas invite their audiences to adopt vegetarianism when they can. In the West, of course, a wide variety of practices are followed. Lay Buddhists generally follow dietary rules less rigorously than monastics.

The three main branches of Buddhism

Stone carvings at Dazu near Chongqing, China.
Stone carvings at Dazu near Chongqing, China.

Buddhism has evolved into myriad schools that can be roughly grouped into three types: Nikaya, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Of the Nikaya schools, only the Theravada survives. Each branch sees itself as representing the true, original teachings of the Buddha, and some schools believe that the dialectic nature of Buddhism allows its format, terminology, and techniques to adapt over time in response to changing circumstances, thus validating dharmic approaches different from their own.

Although Buddhists concur that taking refuge should be undertaken with proper motivation (complete liberation) and an understanding of the objects of refuge, the Indian scholar Atisha identified that in practice there are many different motives found for taking refuge. His idea was to use these different motivations as a key to resolving any apparent conflicts between all the Buddha's teachings without depending upon some form of syncretism that would cause as much confusion as it attempted to alleviate. The various motives for taking refuge are enumerated as follows, typically introduced using the concept of the "scope" (level of motivation) of a practitioner:

  • Worldly scope: to improve the lot of this life - this is not a Buddhist motivation.
  • Low scope: to gain high rebirth and avoid the low realms.
  • Middle scope: to achieve Nirvana (liberation from rebirth).
  • High scope: to achieve Buddhahood in order to liberate others from suffering, the basis of the Mahayana path.
  • Highest scope is also sometimes included: to achieve Buddhahood as soon as possible - in this life - which is the scope of the highest teachings on the Vajrayana (tantric) path.
  • The Theravada school, whose name means "Doctrine of the Elders", bases its practice and doctrine exclusively on the Pali Canon, which is a collection of what are known as agamas or nikaya sutras. The nikaya sutras are generally considered by modern scholars to be the oldest of the surviving types of Buddhist literature, and they are accepted as authentic in every branch of Buddhism. Theravada is the only surviving representative of the historical Nikaya branch. Nikaya Buddhism and consequently Theravada are sometimes referred to by the Mahayana as Hinayana or "small vehicle", although this is considered by some to be impolite. Native Theravada is practiced today in Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and portions of China, Vietnam, and Malaysia. The aim of Nikaya Buddhism is to achieve liberation from rebirth and thus Nirvana.
  • The Mahāyāna (literally "Great Vehicle") branch emphasizes universal compassion and the selfless ideal of the bodhisattva, whose goal is to achieve Buddhahood in order to be of greatest benefit to other sentient beings. In addition to the Nikaya scriptures, Mahāyāna schools recognize all or part of a genre of scriptures that were first put in writing around 1 CE. These scriptures were written in some form of Sanskrit, except a few manuscripts in Prakrit, and are concerned with the purpose of achieving Buddhahood by following the path of the bodhisattva over the course of what is often described as countless eons of time. Because of this immense timeframe, some Mahāyāna schools accept the idea of working towards rebirth in a Pure Land. The Pure Land is normally conceived of as a state which is not enlightenment in itself but which is a highly conducive environment for working toward enlightenment, although some sources indicate that it is synonymous with enlightenment. Native Mahāyāna Buddhism is practiced today in China, Japan, Korea, and most of Vietnam. The various sub-sects of Mahayana Buddhism include: various schools within Pure Land Buddhism (the dominant variety of Mahayana Buddhism) and Zen. Sub-sects within Mahayana are also due to the variations of local cultural interpretations. ie. Chinese Buddhism, Korean Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism, and Vietnamese Buddhism.
  • The Vajrayāna or "Diamond Vehicle" (also referred to as Mantrayana, Tantrayana, Tantric or esoteric Buddhism) shares the basic concepts of Mahāyāna, but also includes a vast array of spiritual techniques designed to enhance Buddhist practice. Vajrayana Buddhism exists today in the form of two major sub-schools: Tibetan Buddhism and Shingon Buddhism. One component of the Vajrayāna is harnessing psycho-physical energy as a means of developing profoundly powerful states of concentration and awareness. These profound states are in turn to be used as an efficient path to Buddhahood. Using these techniques, it is claimed that a practitioner can achieve Buddhahood in one lifetime, or even as little as three years. In addition to the Theravada and Mahāyāna scriptures, Vajrayāna Buddhists recognise a large body of texts that include the Buddhist Tantras. Native Vajrayana is practiced today mainly in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, Kalmykia (in Russia), Siberia (in Russia), areas of India, and -- among the Shingon (Zhènyān, 真言) and Tendai schools -- in China and Japan.

Buddhist regions of the world

The following is a comprehensive aspect of the dominant forms of Buddhism along with the primary regions with which they are associated.

At the present time the teachings of all three branches of Buddhism have spread throughout the world and are now easily available in western countries, and increasingly translated into local languages.

It is believed that China is the only country where all of the major sects of Buddhism have significant numbers of followers.

Buddhism after the Buddha

One of the first representations of the Buddha, 1st-2nd century CE, Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara.
One of the first representations of the Buddha, 1st-2nd century CE, Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara.

Buddhism spread slowly in India until the powerful Mauryan emperor Ashoka converted to it and actively supported it. His promotion led to construction of Buddhist religious sites and missionary efforts that spread the faith into the countries listed at the beginning of the article.

After about 500 CE, Buddhism showed signs of waning in India, becoming nearly extinct after about 1200 CE. This was in part due to Hinduism's revival movements such as Advaita and the rise of the bhakti movement. By the time Muslims entered the Subcontinent in large numbers, Buddhism had been pushed to the Indian "frontiers": Largely relegated to what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh. Over time, the local Buddhist populations gradually assimilated into Islam, hence the concentration of South Asian Islam in the far west and east of the Subcontinent.

Elements of Buddhism have remained within India to the current day: the Bauls of Bengal have a syncretic set of practices with strong emphasis on many Buddhist concepts. Other areas of India have never parted from Buddhism, including Ladakh and other areas bordering the Tibetan, Nepali and Bhutanese borders.

Buddhism also remained in the rest of the world although in Central Asia and later Indonesia it was mostly replaced by Islam. In China and Japan, it adopted aspects of the native beliefs of Confucianism, Taoism and Shinto respectively. In Tibet, the Tantric Vajrayana lineage was preserved after it disappeared in India.

History of the schools

Three months after the passing of Gautama Buddha, The First Council was held at Rajagaha by his immediate disciples who had attained Arahantship (Enlightenment). Maha Kassapa, the most respected and elderly monk, presided at the Council. The Dhamma and the Vinaya were recited at the First Council. All Arahants unanimously agree that no disciplinary rule laid down by the Buddha should be changed, and no new ones should be introduced. At this point, no conflict about what the Buddha taught is known to have occurred, so the teachings were divided into various parts and each was assigned to an elder and his pupils to commit to memory. These groups of people often cross-checked with each other to ensure that no omissions or additions were made.

Novice monks in Burma
Novice monks in Burma

At the Second Council, one hundred years later, it was not the dharma that was called into question but the monks' code of rules or vinaya. This resulted in the formation of the Sthaviravādin and Mahāsānghika schools. Opinions differ on the cause of the split: the Sthaviravādins described their opponents as lax monks who had ceased to follow all the vinaya rules, while the Mahāsānghikas argued that the Buddha had never intended a rigid adherence to all the minor rules. Apart from Pāli sources, an important independent account of this split is found in the Shāriputra-pariprcchā (The Enquiry of Shāriputra), an eclectic text of Indic origin, which differs radically from the received Theravādin version. According to this version, the Mahāsānghikas were not the defeated party, but the conservative party that preserved the original vinaya unchanged against the reformist attempts of the Sthāviras to establish a reorganized and stricter version.

However, after this initial division, more were to follow. Schism in early Buddhism was typically not on points of doctrine (orthodoxy), but in the area of practice (orthopraxy). So if two schools shared a vinaya, but were in dispute over doctrinal matters, it was likely that they would continue to practice together. However, if one group disputed the vinaya of another, this would often prevent common practice.

In the 3rd century BCE, Theravadin sources state that a Third Council was convened under the patronage of Emperor Ashoka, but since no mention of this council is found in other sources and because of various implausible features in this account, most scholars treat the historicity of this Third Council with skepticism although it is generally accepted that one or several disputes did occur during Asoka's reign, involving both doctrinal and vinaya matters, although these are likely to have been too informal to be called a Council.

However, according to the Theravadin account, this Council was convened primarily for the purpose of establishing an official orthodoxy. At the council, small groups raised questions about the specifics of the vinaya and the interpretation of doctrine. The chairman of the council, Moggaliputta Tissa, compiled a book called the Kathavatthu, which was meant to refute these arguments. The council sided with Moggaliputta and his version of Buddhism as orthodox; it was then adopted by Emperor Ashoka as his empire's official religion. This school of thought was termed Vibhajjavada (Pali), literally "Teaching of Analysis". The version of the scriptures that had been established at the Third Council, including the vinaya, sutta and the abhidhamma commentaries (collectively known as Tripitaka), was taken to Sri Lanka by Emperor Ashoka's son, the Venerable Mahinda. There it was eventually committed to writing in the Pali language. The Pali Canon remains the only complete set of Nikaya scriptures to survive, although fragments of other versions exist.

Whatever might be the truth behind the Theravādin account, it was around the time of Asoka that further divisions began to occur within the Buddhist movement and a number of additional schools emerged, including the Sarvāstivāda and the Sammitīya. All of these early schools of Nikayan Buddhism eventually came to be known collectively as the Eighteen Schools in later sources. Unfortunately, with the exception of the Theravāda, none of early these schools survived beyond the late medieval period by which time several were already long extinct, although a considerable amount of the canonical literature of some of these schools has survived, mainly in Chinese translation. Moreover, the origins of specifically Mahāyāna doctrines may be discerned in the teachings of some of these early schools, in particular in the Mahāsānghika and the Sarvāstivāda.

Between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE, the terms Mahayana and Hinayana were first used in writing, in, for example, the Lotus Sutra.

A Fourth Council is said to have been convened by the Kushan emperor Kanishka, around 100 CE at Jalandhar or in Kashmir, although it seems to have been primarily a Sarvāstivāda affair. For this reason, Theravāda Buddhism does not recognize the authenticity of this council, and sometimes they call it the “council of heretical monks”.

It is said that Kanishka gathered 500 monks, headed by Vasumitra, primarily, it seems, to compile extensive commentaries on the Abhidharma, although it is possible that some editorial work was carried out upon the canon itself. The main fruit of this Council was the vast commentary known as the Mahā-Vibhāshā ("Great Exegesis"), an extensive compendium and reference work on a portion the Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma. Scholars beleieve that it was also around this time that a significant change was made in the language of the Sarvāstivādin canon, by converting an earlier Prakrit version into Sanskrit. Although this change was probably effected without significant loss of integrity to the canon, this event was of particular significance since Sanskrit was the learned language of scholars in India, regardless of their specific religious or philosophical allegiance, thus enabling a far wider audience to gain access to Buddhist ideas and practices. For this reason, all major Buddhist scholars in India thereafter wrote their commentaries and treatises in Sanskrit.

During and after the 2nd century explicitly Mahayana philosophies were defined in the works of Nagarjuna, Asanga, Shantideva, Ashvagosha, and Vasubandhu.

A painting depicting a Central Asian Tocharian monk (left) along with a Chinese monk (right). The painting is from the 9th or 10th century in the Tarim Basin.
A painting depicting a Central Asian Tocharian monk (left) along with a Chinese monk (right). The painting is from the 9th or 10th century in the Tarim Basin.

Around the 1st century, Buddhism spread from India through successive waves of merchants and pilgrims. It reached as far as Turkmenistan and Arabia to the west, and eastward to southeast Asia, where the first records of Buddhism date from around 400. Mahayana Buddhism established a major regional center in what is today Afghanistan, and from there it spread to China, Korea, Mongolia,Japan, and Vietnam. In 475, the Indian monk Bodhidharma travelled to China and established the Chan (Chinese; Japanese: Zen), school. During the first millennium, monks from China such as Faxian, Yijing and Xuanzang made pilgrimages to India and wrote accounts of their travels when they returned home. These Chinese travel records constitute extremely valuable sources for information concerning the state of Buddhism in India during the early medieval period.

At one time, different Turkic and Tocharian groups along the northern fringe of East Turkestan (modern Xinjiang in western China) adhered to Nikaya Buddhism. However, Buddhism there was supplanted by the introduction of Islam around 1000.

Vajrayana also evolved at this stage carried from India to Tibet from around 800 by teachers such as Padmasambhava and Atisha. There it initially coexisted with native belief systems such as Bön, but later came to largely supplant or absorb them. An early form of esoteric Vajrayana known as Shingon was also transmitted by the priest Kūkai to Japan, where it continues to be practiced.

There is still an active debate as to whether or not Tantrism was initially developed within Buddhism or Hinduism. Buddhist literature tends to predate the later puranic Tantras, and there is some evidence to suggest that the basic structure of tantra depends upon the Mahayana Buddhist philosophical schools. However, it is thought by others that meditative Shiva sects seem to have existed from pre-Vedic times; also, from scriptural citations and study of the Vedas, some say Tantra saw its philosophical basis in the mystical rites and mantras of the Atharva Veda (and later the Upanishads and Mahayana school of Buddhism).

See also: History of Buddhism and Timeline of Buddhism


The Buddhist canon of scripture is known in Sanskrit as the Tripitaka and in Pāli as the Tipitaka. These terms literally mean "three baskets" and refers to the three main divisions of the canon, which are:

Young Tibetan Buddhist monks debating
Young Tibetan Buddhist monks debating
  • The Vināya Pitaka, containing disciplinary rules for the Sangha of Buddhist monks and nuns, as well as a range of other texts which explain why and how rules were instituted, supporting material, and doctrinal clarification.
  • The Sutta Pitaka (Pāli; Sanskrit: Sutra Pitaka), containing discourses of the Buddha.
  • The Abhidhamma (Skt: Abhidharma) or commentary Pitaka, containing a philosophical systematization of the Buddha's teaching, including a detailed analysis of Buddhist psychology. Though the Theravādin Abhidhamma is well preserved and widely known, it should be noted that a number of the early Eighteen Schools each had their own distinct Abhidharma collection with virtually no common textual material.

During the first few centuries after Gautama Buddha, his teachings were transmitted orally, but around the 1st Century CE they began to be written down. A given school of Buddhism will generally have its own distinctive canon of texts, which will partially overlap with those of other schools. The most notable set of texts from the early period is the Pali Canon, which was preserved in Sri Lanka by the Theravāda school. The sutras it contains are also part of the canon of every other Buddhist sect. Full versions of the original text[1] and partial English translations[2] are now readily available on the internet.

The appearance of the Mahāyāna tradition brought with it a collection of new texts, composed in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, many of which were also described as actual sermons of the Buddha. These include the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, the Avataṃsaka, the Lotus Sutra, the Vimalakīrti Sutra, and the Nirvana Sutra. Many of the Mahayana sutras were translated into Tibetan and classical Chinese and are also now read in the West.

The Mahāyāna corpus of sutras further expanded after Buddhism was transmitted to China, where the existing texts were translated, and new texts were composed for the purpose of adapting the Indian tradition to the East Asian philosophical mindset. Some of these works are considered by modern scholars to be spurious. On the other hand, there were texts, such as the Platform Sutra and the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment did not pretend to be of Indian origin, but are widely accepted as valid scriptures on their own merits. Later writings include the Linji Lu of Chan master Linji. In the course of the development of Korean Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism, further important texts were composed. These included, for example, in Korea, some of the writings of Jinul, and in Japan, works such as Dogen's Shobogenzo.

Arguably the most thorough compilation of Mahayana works is found in the Tibetan canon. This is split into those texts attributed to be authored by the Buddha (Kanjur), and those texts which are understood to be commentaries by Indian practitioners (Tenjur). Vajrayāna practitioners also study the Buddhist tantras.

Recently an important archaeological discovery was made, consisting of the earliest known Buddhist manuscripts, recovered from somewhere near ancient Gandhara in northwest Pakistan. These fragments, written on birch bark, are dated to the 1st century and have been compared to the Dead Sea scrolls in importance. Donated to the British Library in 1994, they are now being studied in a joint project at the University of Washington[3].

Relations with other Eastern faiths

Some Hindus (primarily in the northern regions of India) believe that Gautama is the 9th incarnation (see avatar) of Vishnu; there are accounts of the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu that are pro- and anti-Buddhist (i.e., either that Vishnu "really meant" what he said while incarnated as Buddha or that he was intentionally tricking those who follow unorthodox doctrines). This is not a majority view, however. The avatar theory came into existence in approximately the 9th century CE.

Traditionally, there has been a sharp distinction between Buddhism and what is today called "Hinduism"; this distinction is more accurately between Astika and Nastika philosophies, that is, philosophies in India which either affirmed the Vedas as divinely revealed scriptures or else regarded them as fallible human inventions. Thus Buddhism is essentially a heresy vis à vis orthodox Indian philosophy, though there are many syncretic or ecumenical tendencies within either group which are accepting of the beliefs and practices of the other.

In the Japanese religion of Shintoism Buddha is seen as a Kami (god). The Bahá'í Faith states he was an independent Manifestation of God. Siddhartha Gautama is thought to have been sanctified by the Roman Catholic Church as Saint Josaphat based on a mistaken account of his life that made him out to be a Christian convert. Some Muslims believe that Gautama Buddha is Dhul-Kifl, one of the prophets mentioned in the Qur'an.

Jainism is an ancient religion and school of thought that predates Buddhism. One of its two most revered teachers, Mahāvīra (599 - 527 BCE according to Jains, though "some modern scholars prefer 549-477 B.C."1), was possibly a senior contemporary of the Buddha whose philosophy, sometimes described as dynamism or vitalism, was a blend of the earlier Jain teacher Pārśvanātha's order and the reforms instituted by Mahavira himself. Dialogues between the Buddha's disciples and Mahāvīra are recorded in Jain texts, and dialogues between Mahāvīra's disciples and the Buddha are included in Buddhist texts.

The relationships between Taoism (Chinese folk religion still popular today) and Buddhism are complex, as they influenced each other in many ways while often competing for influence. The arrival of Buddhism forced Taoism to renew and restructure itself and address existential questions raised by Buddhism. Buddhism was seen as a kind of foreign Taoism and its scriptures were translated into Chinese with Taoist vocabulary. Zen (Chan) Buddhism in particular holds many beliefs in common with philosophical Taoism.

Confucianism also has much in common with Buddhism, and historically, people have practiced both. Some would argue however, that Confucianism is in fact not a religion, but a philosophy. Whatever the case, Buddhism shares many commonalities with Neo-Confucianism , which is Confucianism with more religious elements. In fact, the ritual of ancestor worship normally practiced by Confucianists, has been adapted to Chinese Buddhist beliefs.

Buddhism in the modern world

The international Buddhist flag was designed in Sri Lanka in the 1880s with the assistance of Henry Steele Olcott and was later adopted as a symbol by the World Fellowship of Buddhists.
The international Buddhist flag was designed in Sri Lanka in the 1880s with the assistance of Henry Steele Olcott and was later adopted as a symbol by the World Fellowship of Buddhists.
Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and the spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity.
Albert Einstein

Estimates of the number of Buddhists vary between 230 and 500 million, with 350 million as the most commonly cited figure. [4]

Modern Asia

In northern Asia, Mahāyāna remains the most common form of Buddhism in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, (parts of) Indonesia and Singapore. Theravāda predominates in most of Southeast Asia, including Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, as well as Sri Lanka. It has seats in Malaysia and Singapore. Vajrayāna is predominant in Tibet, Mongolia, portions of Siberia and portions of India, especially those areas bordering Tibet. Kalmykia, while geographically located in Europe, is culturally closely related to Mongolia and thus its Buddhism is more properly grouped with Asian than with Western Buddhism.

While in the West, Buddhism is often seen as exotic and progressive; in the East, Buddhism is regarded as familiar and part of the establishment. Buddhist organizations in Asia frequently are well-funded and enjoy support from the wealthy and influential. In some cases, this has led critics to charge that certain monks and organizations are too closely associated with the powerful and are neglecting their duties to the poor.

Buddhism and the West

In the latter half of the 19th century, Buddhism (along with many other of the world's religions and philosophies) came to the attention of Western intellectuals. These included the pessimistic German philosopher Schopenhauer-- who encountered Buddhism, and Eastern thought in general, after having devised a philosophical system of considerable compatibility, and the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who translated a Buddhist sutra from French into English. Western spiritual seekers were attracted to what they saw as the exotic and mystical tone of the Asian traditions, and created esoteric societies such as the Theosophical Society of H.P. Blavatsky. The Buddhist Society, London was founded by Theosophist Christmas Humphreys in 1924.

At first Western Buddhology was hampered by poor translations (often translations of translations), but soon Western scholars such as Max Müller began to learn Asian languages and translate Asian texts.

In 1880 a committee comprised of Ven Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera (Chairman), Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera, Don Carolis Hewavitharana (father of Anagarika Dharmapala), Andiris Perera Dharmagunawardhana (maternal grandfather of Anagarika Dharmapala), William de Abrew, Charles A. de Silva, Peter de Abrew, H. William Fernando, N. S. Fernando and Carolis Pujitha Gunawardena (Secretary) designed the International Buddhist flag to celebrate the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and (Theosophist) Henry Steel Olcott made suggestions for modifying it [5]. Its stripes symbolise universal compassion, the middle path, blessings, purity and liberation, wisdom, and the conglomeration of these. The flag was accepted as the International Buddhist Flag by the 1952 World Buddhist Congress.

A hallway in California's Hsi Lai Temple
A hallway in California's Hsi Lai Temple

In 1899 Gordon Douglas became the first Westerner to be ordained as a Buddhist monk.

The first Buddhists to arrive in the United States were Chinese. Hired as cheap labor for the railroads and other expanding industries, they established temples in their settlements along the rail lines. See the article on Buddhism in America for further information.

During the 20th century the German writer Hermann Hesse showed great interest in Eastern religions, writing a book entitled Siddhartha. American beat generation poet Jack Kerouac became a well-known literary Buddhist, for his roman-a-clef The Dharma Bums and other works. The cultural re-evaluations of the hippie generation in the late 1960s and early 1970s led to a re-discovery of Buddhism, which seemed to promise a more methodical path to happiness than Christianity and a way out of the perceived spiritual bankruptcy of Western life.

Many of these 'seekers', traveling to Asia in pursuit of gurus and ancient wisdom, first encountered Buddhism in Nepal or northern India through contact with Tibetan monks who had fled the Chinese occupancy in 1959. Within a few years Tibetan lamas such as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Geshe Ngawang Wangyal and the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, were invited to teach in the West.

In addition to this a number of Americans who had served in the Korean or Vietnam Wars stayed out in Asia, seeking to understand both the horror they had witnessed and its context. A few of these eventually ordained as monks in the Theravadan tradition, and upon returning home became influential meditation teachers establishing such centres as IMS in America.

Another contributing factor in the flowering of Buddhist thought in the West was the popularity of Zen amongst the counter-culture poets and activists of the 60's, due to the writings of Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki. Since that time Buddhism has become the fastest-growing religion in Australia and many other Western nations.

A distinctive feature of Buddhism has been the continuous evolution of the practice as it was transmitted from one country to another. This dynamic aspect is particularly evident today in the West. Chögyam Trungpa, the founder of the Shambhala meditation movement, claimed in his teachings that his intention was to strip the ethnic baggage away from traditional methods of working with the mind and to deliver the essence of those teachings to his western students. Another example of a school evolving new idioms for the transmission of the dharma is the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, founded by Sangharakshita. Lama Surya Das is a prominent Western-born teacher continuing to bring the teachings of Buddhism to Westerners.

Sogyal Rinpoche is well known for the Modern Classic 'The Tibetan Book of Living & Dying' and along with his brother Dzogchen Rinpoche are the founders of the intenational RIGPA sangha (http://www.rigpa.org.uk/).

Some, mainly American convert Buddhists including Jack Kerouac, are recently incorporating Jesus into Buddhism. They claim that Jesus is a bodhisattva in that he achieved a very high degree of enlightenment and power.

See also


Related systems and religions



  1. ^  The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. Keith Crim, editor. Harper & Row Publishers: New York, 1989. 451.

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