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.


According to the scriptures, a council was held shortly after the Buddha's death, at which his teachings were collected. Historians regard this as greatly exaggerated, if not fictitious. A "second" council, placed by the scriptures of different schools 100 or 110 years later, is generally regarded as historical, though the date is uncertain. It was held to resolve a dispute about monastic discipline, the main point being whether monks were allowed to accept money. It was agreed they were not, and in theory this remains the rule to this day, though it is often ignored in practice.

At some point after this the monastic order split into two, the Theravada and Mahasanghika. Both the date and the cause of the split are uncertain. Subsequent splits produced, according to tradition, 18 schools. However, about twice as many names are included in the various traditional lists of 18 schools. Although some are thought to be alternative names for the same schools, it is agreed that the number is conventional. Only 4 of these schools were particularly important in the main parts of India: Theravada, Mahasanghika, (Mula-)Sarvastivada and Sammitiya. The last 2 split with the Theravada. The relation between Sarvastivada and Mula-Sarvastivad is unclear, but no source mentions them as existing at the sam place and time. In the far north-west, and in Central Asia, 3 other schools were important: Dharmaguptaka, Mahisasaka and Kasyapiya.

In the 3rd century BC, Buddhism received a great boost from the patronage of the Emperor Ashoka.

In this period, there was a great strengthening of the devotional strain that had probably been present from the beginning. There was also a further development of analytical ideas, in the form of the abhidharma.


East Asia

The Tibetan tradition

Buddhism in the modern world