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.

The doctrine of karma holds that one's actions, words and thoughts produce moral results. If one acts well, one experiences pleasant results; bad actions produce unpleasnt results. These results may appear in the same lifetime or a subsequent one.

"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 same 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.


The origins of Mahayana are unclear, historians giving quite a variety of different pictures. Some form of it certainly existed by the 2nd century AD, when a few of its texts were translated into Chinese, but it may well not have become a fully fledged separate movement for some centuries. Nowadays, Buddhists identify themselves as belonging to either Theravada or Mahayana. The term means great way or vehicle.

The most important aspect of Mahayana is the path of the bodhisattva. Early Buddhism distinguished between the Buddha, who discovered the truth for himself and then taught it to others, and his disciples, who learnt it from him. A third category, the paccekabuddha, who discovers the truth for himself but does not teach it to others, is also mentioned occasionally in the early literature. From quite early on, there were stories of the Buddha's previous lives, and by about 100 BC these were regarded as examples of his following the path of the bodhisattva, then understood as one practising for attainment of Buddhahood. It is not clear when some people actually started practising this path, but it became part of traditional Buddhism as an option, which it remains in Theravada today.

Gradually, some of the followers of this path developed new teachings that eventually brought them into conflict with traditionalists. They sometimes became quite derogatory about them, calling them Hinayana, which means inferior way or vehicle. They came to encourage everyone to follow the bodhisattva path, rather than just leave it as an option. Most of them eventually held that in fact everyone would eventually become a bodhisattva. They argued that delaying one's own liberation for the sake of helping others was a necessary manifestation of compassion. This involves a change in the meaning of the term "Buddha". The earlier idea of a Buddha as someone who discovers the truth for himself and then teaches it to others is incompatible with the idea of everyone becoming a Buddha: one cannot have all teachers and no pupils.

They also developed new doctrines about the nature of the Buddha. Whereas most of the early schools held that he was a human being who attained awakening in his historical life, Mahayana came to believe that that life was a mere illusion, created by a celestial Buddha, awakened ages before, for the purpose of helping beings. This was taught in the Lotus Sutra, one of the most important Mahayana scriptures. There, the Buddha says that he had attained awakening ages before, and that he would live for ages more. he then immediately goes on to say that his lifetime is infinite. This led to two different schools of interpretation, according to which of these two statements is taken literally, and which is regarded as mere rhetorical flourish. If the Buddha's lifetime is indeed infinite, as is generally held in the Tibetan tradition, then one must simply try to become a Buddha as quickly as possible, in order to be of most help to beings. However, if it is only finite, even if extremely long, the possibility is there that one might do more good by remaining in the world for as long as there are beings needing help, presumably for ever, than by spending a finite time as a Buddha. Some Indian and Chinese texts do in fact hold that one can, or even should, do precisely this. Thus the original meaning of a bodhisattva as someone on the path to Buddhahood has changed.

The classical literature summarizes the path of the bodhisattva in terms of the development of "perfections". The standard Mahayana list, probably inherited from one of the early schools, has six: generosity, morality, acceptance, exertion, concentration and wisdom. Theravada has a somewhat different list of ten, though the classical Theravada commentator Dhammapala holds the two lists to be equivalent.

The perfection of wisdom, in particular, is the subject of a large body of Mahayana scriptures, which teach that all things are "empty", a concept that has been subject to a wide variety of interpretations, both among Mahayana Buddhists and among modern scholars.

An important practical concept in Mahayana is that of "skilful means". The Mahayana used this to explain the differences between their teachings an dthose of early Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra explained that the Buddha taught people what would benefit them. Thus he taught early Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths and so on, to those who were not ready for Mahayana. Later, new forms of Mahayana made similar claims about earlier ones, while the earlier ones responded by making the same claims in reverse. So, for example, some later Mahayana scriptures claimed that in fact emptiness was not the ultimate truth; rather, the ultimate reality was mind. This was developed into a detailed philosophical tradition, known as Cittamatra (mind only) or Yogacara, in opposition to a similar tradition, known as Madhyamika (middle way), teaching emptiness. Each held the other to be merely skilful means.

Nowadays, nearly all Mahayanists regard Madhyamika as a higher truth, than Yogacara, though only the Tibetan tradition regards it as the highest truth, and even there there are disagreements on its interpretation.


Some centuries after Mahayana, a movement developed called originally Mantrayana, and later Vajrayana. A Tibetan classification of Indian Buddhist teachings considers it the third yana, after "Hinayana" and Mahayana, and this classification has been adopted by historians. It emphasizes various ritual, yogic or magical practices as a more rapid path to awakening. Some elements of this sort of thing were present even in early Buddhism, and continue in modern Theravada, but much was added and expanded over the centuries. The latest phase of development of Vajrayana involved sexual yoga.

Decline, disappearance and revival

Over the centuries, Buddhism declined in India, for a variety of reasons. The relative contributions of Hindu and Muslim persecutions and internal decadence remain a matter of debate among historians. By the time of the British conquest, Buddhism had virtually disappeared, except in some small areas adjacent to Buddhist countries.

Buddhism survived because, before it disappeared in India, it had spread from there in three directions:

  1. to Ceylon (Sri Lanka)
  2. via Central Asia to China
  3. to Tibet

These were the origins of the three main branches of present-day Buddhism, covered in the sections below. They were established respectively in the periods of dominance of the three yanas, and are likewise respectively dominated by them, but not exclusively. Each includes elements of all three yanas.

Since 1956, there has been a substantial Buddhist revival in India, mainly among Untouchables.


Theravada is a conservative tradition, and remains generally closest to early Buddhism.

Ceylon (Sri Lanka)

Theravada Buddhism was established in Ceylon in the 3rd century BC. Mahayana ideas and practices were later imported as well, leading to a conflict lasting about a millennium between the Theravada Mahavihara and the Mahayana Abhayagiri monastic schools. Eventually, in the 12th century, they were "voluntarily" reunited under King Parakramabahu. Mahayana texts were suppressed, though some elements were adopted.

The Pali Canon, the scriptures of Theravada, were written down from oral tradition in the last century BC. Its native name is Tipitaka, meaning three baskets, from its divisions:

  1. Vinaya Pitaka, on monastic discipline
  2. Sutta Pitaka or Suttanta Pitaka: discourses by the Buddha and others
  3. Abhidhamma Pitaka, higher teaching

An Indian monk named Buddhaghosa working in Ceylon, probably in the 5th century, played the central role in codifying the traditional Theravada interpretation of the teachings. He edited and translated from Old Sinhalese into Pali the traditional commentaries on much of the Canon.

He also compiled the Visuddhimagga, the standard compendium of the teachings. This is in 23 chapters. Chapter 1 deals with morality. Like the book as a whole, it is almost entirely monastic. The five precepts for lay people are mentioned briefly but not even listed. Chapter 2 covers 13 optional extra strict practices, of which 2 are stated to be suitable for laity: eating one meal a day, and eating from a single vessel.

Chapter 3 explains the preliminaries to meditation, and briefly surveys the different types of samatha (calm) meditation. There are 40 of these, which are dealt with in detail in Chapters 4-11. Once one has developed this, Chapters 12 and 13 explain how one can use it to develop various psychic powers.

Chapters 14-17 are concerned with doctrine, giving detailed expalnations, often in abhidhamma terms, of various doctrines such as the Four Noble Truths. This is to serve as the soil in which wisdom grows, its roots being morality and concentration (this latter closely related to samatha). Chapters 18-22 detail the stages of vipassana (insight) meditation, leading up to the attainment of liberation. Finally, Chapter 23 describes the advantages of this liberation.

In the 16th century, the Portuguese conquered the coastal regions of the country and persecuted Buddhism. It went into a decline, and the monastic ordination died out. It was eventually restored at the third attempt, from Thailand in 1753. The monastic order is currently organized in four independent groups, separated mainly on caste lines.

South-east Asia

East Asia

The Tibetan tradition

Buddhism in the modern world