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See also Wikipedia article on Buddhism, Wikipedia article on Buddhism 2003, Buddhism according to scholars.
For criticism see Criticism of Buddhism.

Buddhism is usually considered a religion,[1] one of the three major universal religions. It is based on the teachings of Gautama, whose personal name is given in the scriptures as Siddhartha (Sanskrit; Pali Gotama, Siddhattha), a spiritual leader who lived and taught in areas now in India and Nepal, and died probably around 400 BCE.[2] The religion that started in India propagated to Sri Lanka, China and Tibet. Sri Lankan Buddhism spread to Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Chinese Buddhism spread to Vietnam and Korea. Korea introduced Buddhism to Japan. Tibetan Buddhism spread to the Mongols, and a migrating Mongol tribe established it in Europe. In recent times all three branches have spread to the West and elsewhere. There are "significantly large communities" of Buddhists in 126 countries.[3] The world Buddhist population has been estimated at 1,600,000,000 ([1]).

The Buddha

Buddha is a word in the ancient Indian languages Pali and Sanskrit which means, literally, one who is awake; less literally, it is often translate as Enlightened One. It is related to the word Bodhi which means awakening.

Legend has it that the Buddha to be, Siddhartha Gautama, was born in what is now Nepal. His father was a king, and Siddhartha lived in luxury, being spared any hardship. The legends say that a seer predicted that Siddhartha would either become a great king, or a great holy man, and this led to the king trying to make sure that Siddhartha never had any cause for dissatisfaction with his life. However, at the age of 29, while being escorted by his attendant Channa, he came across what have become known as the Four Sights: an old crippled man, a sick man, a decaying corpse, and finally a wandering holy man. These led him to the realisation that old-age, sickness and death came to everyone, not only once but repeated for life after life in succession for uncounted aeons. He decided to abandon his wordly life, leaving behind his wife and son, his privilege, rank, caste, and to take up the life of a wandering holy man in search of the answer to the problem of old-age, sickness and death. It is said that he stole out of the house in the dead of night, pausing for one last look at his family, and did not return there for a very long time. Indian holy men (sadhus), in those days just like today, practiced a variety of ascetic displines designed to 'mortify' the flesh - it was thought that by enduring pain and suffering, the Atman or Soul became free from the round of rebirth into pain and sorrow. (This was an early form of Hinduism.)

Siddhartha proved adept at these practices, and was able to surpass his teachers. However, he found no answer to his problem, and leaving behind his teachers, he and a small group of companions set out to take their austerities even further. He became a skeleton covered with skin, surviving on a single grain of rice per day, and practiced holding his breath. After nearly starving himself to death with no success (some sources claim that he nearly drowned), Siddhartha began to reconsider his path. Then he remembered a moment in childhood in which he had been watching his father start the seasons plowing, and he had fallen into a naturally concentrated and focussed state in which time seemed to stand still, and which was blissful and refreshing. Perhaps this would provide an alternative to the dead end of self-mortification?

Taking a little butter milk from a passing goatherd, he found a large tree (now called the Bodhi tree)) under which he would be shaded from the heat of the mid-summer sun, and set to meditating. And this new way of practicing began to bear fruit. His mind became concentrated and pure, and then, six years after he began his quest, he attained Enlightenment, and became a Buddha. This meant that he had discovered a way to be free from the troubles of the world.

Buddhist morality

The Five Precepts

  1. I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.
  2. I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.
  3. I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.
  4. I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.
  5. I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicants which lead to carelessness.


Buddhists identify themselves as either Theravada or Mahayana.[4] According to Buddhologist Roy C. Amore, Theravada and Mahayana are different vehicles for travelling the same path to enlightenment.[5]

Theravada ("Teaching of the Elders", or "Ancient Teaching") is a conservative school. It is generally closest to the Buddhism of early centuries.[6] It teaches a graduated path of morality, meditation and wisdom.

Mahayana ("Great Way or Vehicle") emphasizes adapting the teachings to suit different people, and is thus very diverse.[7]

The most widely practised subdivision of Mahayana, indeed of Buddhism ([2]), is Pure Land, though it has received little attention in the West so far. Followers practise devotion to the celestial Buddha Amitabha in the hope or belief that he will grant them rebirth in his Pure Land, where conditions are more conducive to the path.

Zen is one of the better-known Mahayana subdivisions in the West. It has a number of major subschools: Soto, Rinzai, Son/Chogye, Thien and Chan. It involves meditation practices that, except in Son, are aimed at bypassing conceptual thought, rather than using it as a starting point as in Theravada.

The Nichiren school, named after its founder, emphasizes devotion to its principal scripture, the Lotus Sutra.

Vajrayana consists of five major schools: Shingon, Geluk, Nyingma, Kagyu, and Sakya. These schools strongly emphasize ritual, yogic or magical practices.

A feature of Buddhism in the West has been the emergence of groups, which although they draw on traditional Buddhism, are in fact an attempt at creating a new style of "non-sectarian" Buddhist practice. Ch�gyam Trungpa's Shambala group is one example, and the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order founded by Sangharakshita is another.

History of Schools

According to the scriptural accounts, shortly after the passing of Gautama, The First Council was held by the Sangha. At this point, no conflict about what the Buddha taught occurred and the teachings were handed on by oral tradition.

By the Second Council, about one hundred years later according to the scriptural accounts, the teachings were not in question but the Vinaya rules of monks were. The seemingly trivial dispute was over the Ten Points, which include the storing of salt in a horn, the use of rugs of improper size, and the use of gold and silver. The questions were resolved by agreement. However, at some subsequent point, and for some reason, the Sangha split into two: Theravada and Mahasanghika. Over the succeeding centuries further splits occurred.

In the 3rd century BC the Third Council occurred, probably an exclusively Theravada affair.

The terms Mahayana and Hinayana appeared (in the Sutra of the Lotus of the Good Law) though Mahayana may not have been a fully separate movement until the fifth century. Theravada was brought to Sri Lanka by the son of Asoka, Ven. Mahinda. Vajrayana (the way of Tantra) also evolved at this stage, climbing from India in to Tibet around 600 AD, where it initially coexisted with native belief systems (see B�n) but later came to largely supplant or absorb them.

With the decline and disppearance of Indian Buddhism, most of the early schools of Buddhism died out as well, with only those forms surviving that had spread beyond India: Theravada in Sri Lanka, and Mahayana in China and Tibet. In China new forms of Mahayana evolved. They claimed Indian antecedents, but these appear to have had no prominence in India. The main Chinese schools were Pure Land and Chan (Zen) for practice, and Tiantai and Huayan for theory. At one time most Chinese monks practised Chan, with Pure Land being mainly a lay movement, but over the centuries Chan gradually declined, becoming effectively extinct in mainland China after the Communist takeover, though it remains popular in Taiwan. Buddhism in Communist China is now almost entirely Pure Land.

The Chinese mixture of schools spread to Korea and Vietnam, and from Korea to Japan. Zen survives much more strongly there than in China. In Japan, there are other important schools: Nichiren, named after its founder, and Shingon.

See also: Timeline of Buddhism


Different schools of Buddhism use different scriptures.

Relations with other faiths

In Hinduism, Gautama is recognized as the 9th incarnation of Vishnu and in the religion of Shintoism, he is seen as a Kami. The Baha'i Faith states he was an independent Manifestation of God. In Christianity, the legend of Saint Josaphat seems to be based on the story of Gautama . Buddhism tends to be extremely ecletic and can easily incorporate the beliefs of other faiths. For example, it is common for Buddhists to view the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, Confucius, and Muhammad as bodhisattvas. However, while Buddhism can incorporate other faiths, the reverse is not always true. It is common, especially in East Asia, for Christians to be hostile to Buddhism which they regard as practicing both polytheism and idolatry.

Buddhism in the modern world

Theravada dominates Southeast Asia, including Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, as well as Sri Lanka. In Communist China, Buddhism is now just Pure Land. The Buddhism of Vietnam, Taiwan and Singapore is a mixture of Pure Land and Zen. In Japan, the main forms of Buddhism are Nichiren, Pure Land, Zen and Shingon. The Buddhism of Korea is mainly of the Chogye school. Among the Mongol peoples, including not just Mongolia proper, but also the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region of China and the Buryat, Tuvan and Kalmyk Autonomous Republics in Russia, Buddhism is of the Gelug tradition, which is also the majority in Tibet. Bhutan belongs to the Drugpa subdivision of the Kagyu school. Nyingma, Kagyu and Sakya are also present as minorities in Tibet.

Officially, in 1899, the first Westerner (by the name of Gordon Douglas) was ordained in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism in Myanmar.

In the later half of the 1800s, Buddhism came to be known in the West. Great European colonial empires brought ancient cultures of India and China to the attention of Europeans. Subsequently, on the East coast of America, intellectuals would soon read about Buddhism by the books of those Europeans. Henry Thoreau would translate a French copy of a Buddhist Sutra into English. The first Buddhists to arrive in the United States of America were the Chinese immigrants. Proving to be cheap labor for the railroads and other expanding industries, they later established temples along the rail lines. Scholars began to learn Asian languages and translate Asian texts. Religious enthusiasts enjoyed the exotic and mystical tone of the Asian traditions.

By unsatisfactoriness, the Hippie generation in the late 1960s and early 1970s would stumble upon Buddhism. When the excitment of recreational drugs like marijuana and LSD wore off, hippies became naturally open to the idea of the lasting high of Nirvana. Celebrities soon traveled to the East in pursuit of this foreign philosophy and the trend and interest grew; popularizing Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies back home in America. In the 1990s, Buddhism became the fastest growing religion in Australia, in contrast to the steady decline of traditional western beliefs (see Christianity).

While in the West, Buddhism is regarded often as exotic and anti-establishment, in East Asia, Buddhism is regarded as familiar and part of the establishment. Buddhist organizations in East Asia often are well funded with donations from the wealthy and power.

A feature of Buddhism in the West has been the emergence of groups which, while they draw on traditional Buddhism, are in fact an attempt at creating a new style of non-sectarian Buddhist practice. The Shambala group set up by Ch�gyam_Trungpa is one example, and the FWBO by Sangharakshita is another.

Buddhism and Science

Buddhism has been lauded by scientists such as Albert Einstein, who stated that "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".

Some modern scientific theories such as Rogerian Pyschology, show strong parallels with Buddhist thought.

See also: Bodh Gaya -- Buddhism in China -- Buddhist philosophy -- Buddhist Sculpture -- Classification of Buddhism -- Dalai Lama-- Demographics of Buddhism -- Eastern philosophy -- List of Buddhists -- List of Buddhist terms and concepts -- Middle way -- Monasteries -- Nichiren Buddhism -- Om -- Pure Land -- -- Tibetan Buddhism -- Timeline of Buddhism -- Universal Vehiclism -- Zen

External links


  1. Numen, vol 49, p 388; reprinted in Williams, Buddhism, vol III, p 403
  2. Gethin, Sayings of the Buddha, Oxford University Press, 2008, page xv
  3. World Christian Encyclopedia, 2nd ed, Oxford University Press, 2001, volume 1, page 3
  4. Keown, Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 1996, p 11
  5. Oxtoby & Amore, World Religions: Eastern Tradtions, Oxford University Press, 2010, page 205
  6. Gethin, Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 1998, page 1
  7. Williams, Mahayana Buddhism, 2nd ed, 2006, Routledge, pages 1f

Suggested reading

A wide range of books in this field can be obtained through Wisdom Books.

Works of scholars

For the general reader

  • Bechert & Gombrich, World of Buddhism, Thames & Hudson, London, 1984: written by 11 scholars; includes nearly 300 illustrations, 82 in colour; "by far the most scholarly and comprehensive survey of Buddhism for the general reader." (Eliade, ed, Encyclopedia of Religion, Macmillan, 1987, volume 2, page 382)
  • Lopez, Buddhism, Penguin/Story of Buddhism, Harper, San Francisco, 2001


Most up-to-date first.

  • Mitchell & Jacoby, Buddhism, 3rd ed, Oxford University Press, 2014; review of 1st ed in Philosophy East and West, volume 54
  • Keown, Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 1996; 2nd edition, 2013
  • Harvey, Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge University Press, 2nd ed, 2012
  • Prebish & Keown, Introducing Buddhism, 2nd ed, Routledge, 2010
  • Cantwell, Buddhism, Routledge, 2010
  • Olson, The Different Paths of Buddhism, Rutgers University Press, 2005
  • Habito, Experiencing Buddhism, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2005; Table of contents
  • Robinson et al, Buddhist Religions, 5th ed, Wadsworth, Belmont, California, 2004: the s is new to this edition; "perhaps the most popular of all introductory textbooks on Buddhism" (Routledge Encyclopedia of Buddhism, page 629); review (Journal of the American Academy of Religion, volume 74, number 3, September 2006, pages 765-70) also makes brief comments on several other books in this list
  • Klostermaier, Buddhism, Oneworld Pub, 1999; Introduction
  • Gethin, Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 1998


  • Chapter 8 in Penguin Handbook of the World's Living Religions, 3rd edition, 2010
  • Kitagawa & Cummings, Buddhism & Asian History, Macmillan, 1989: selected articles from Encyclopedia of Religion, 15 vols, Macmillan, New York, 1987
  • Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2 vols, Macmillan, 2004: written by over 200 scholars
  • Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Routledge, 2007: written by 23 scholars
  • Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, 2013


  • Williams, Buddhism, 8 vols, Routledge, 2005: reprints of papers by many scholars, 1958-2003

Compilations of Buddhist writings

For individual writers see the articles on the particular forms of Buddhism they belong to.

  • Morgan, Path of the Buddha, Ronald Press, New York, 1956; reprint Motilal, Delhi, distributed by Wisdom Books: the editor travelled round the East asking leading Buddhists to recommend contributors; he ended up with 7 Japanese professors, 3 Theravada monks and a Tibetan official
  • Lopez, Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics, 2004: a broad selection of Buddhist literature
  • see also Buddhist anthologies in English

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