Buddhism according to scholars (older version)

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For criticism see Criticism of Buddhism according to scholars (older version)
See also Buddhism.


The Buddha

"Buddha" is a title, meaning "Awakened". His (family) name was Gautama, in its Sanskrit form, or Gotama in Pali. His own native dialect would have been different from both. There is now a more or less established consensus among specialist historians placing his death around 400 BC. The traditional site of his birthplace was marked by a commemorative pillar in the 3rd century BC, and this was rediscovered by archaeologists in the 1890s, in a piece of territory that had been transferred to Nepal in 1860. Historians accept that he existed, taught, and founded a monastic order, but regard most details of his traditional biographies as questionable. The teachings were written down only centuries later. However, certain teachings are found with such frequency throughout the early texts that most historians conclude that he must have taught at least something of the sort.

Early teachings

The teachings of early Buddhism can be summarized as rebirth, karma and the "Four Noble Truths".

After death, beings normally start a new life, beginning from conception. These lives can be of various sorts, later systematized as 5 (in Theravada) or 6 (in Mahayana) realms:

  • human beings
  • animals
  • ghosts
  • gods
  • hell inmates
  • (in Mahayana) demons

Theravada believes a new life follows immediately after death, but Mahayana that there is an intermediate state.

"Four Noble Truths" is the usual translation. There are two different views among historians as to the original meaning. One view, which became the traditional Buddhist view quite early, is that "Truths" is a rather misleading translation: these are "things" rather than statements, "realities" rather than "truths". The four are suffering, its cause (craving), its cessation (nirvana) and the path going to that cessation, namely the eightfold path: right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. According to the other interpretation, adopted by some modern Buddhist teachers, the four are indeed "truths", statements: life is suffering; its cause is craving; its cessation, nirvana, can be brought about by the cessation of the cause; and this can be done by following the eightfold path.


East Asia

The Tibetan tradition

Buddhism in the modern world