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Buddhism is one of the major religions of the world it was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, who lived
in northern India from c.560 to c.480 BC. The time of the Buddha was a time of social and religious change, the
development of trade and cities, the breakdown of old tribal traditions, and the rise of many new religious
movements that answered the demands of the times. These movements came from the Brahmanic tradition of
Hinduism but were also reactions against it. Of the new sects, Buddhism was the most successful and eventually
spread throughout India and most of Asia.
Today Buddhism is divided into two main branches. The Theravada, or “Way of the Elders,” the more conservative
of the two, it is mainly found in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand. The Mahayana, or “Great Vehicle,” is more liberal,
it is found mainly in Taiwan, Korea, and Japan, and among Tibetan peoples, where it is known by its emphasis on
the Buddhist Tantras. In recent times, both branches, as well as Tibetan Buddhism, have gained followers in the
It is almost impossible to tell the size of the Buddhist population today. Statistics are difficult to obtain because
some individuals may have Buddhist beliefs and engage in Buddhist rites while maintaining folk or other religions;
these people may or may not call themselves Buddhists. Nevertheless, the number of Buddhists worldwide is
estimated at more than 300 million.
The matter of what Buddha’s original teachings were cause of major controversy. Even so, it is said to have centered
on certain basic doctrines. The first of the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha held, is suffering. By this, he meant not
only that human existence is occasionally painful but that all beings–humans, animals, ghosts, hell-beings, even the
gods–are caught up in samsara, a cycle of rebirth, a maze of suffering in which their actions keep them wandering.
Samsara and karma are not doctrines specific to Buddhism. The Buddha, however, specified that samsara is
characterized by three marks: suffering, impermanence and no self. Individuals not only suffer in a constantly
changing world, but what appears to be the “self,” the “soul,” has no independent reality apart from its many
The second Noble Truth is that suffering itself has a cause. At the simplest level, this may be said to be desire; but
the theory was fully worked out in the complex doctrine of “dependent origination,” which explains the
interrelationship of all reality in terms of an unbroken chain of causation.
The third Noble Truth is that this chain can be broken–that suffering can cease. The Buddhists called this end of
suffering nirvana and thought of it as a rebirth, an escape from samsara.
Finally, the fourth Noble Truth is that a way exists through which this reversal can be brought about, the practice of
the noble Eightfold Path. This combines ethical and disciplinary practices and training in concentration and
meditation with initial faith, which is finally transformed into wisdom.
With the death of the Buddha, his followers immediately faced a crisis, what were they to do in the with their master
gone? The followers who had remained householders proceeded to honor his bodily relics, which were monuments
called stupas. This was the beginning of a cult of devotion to the person of the Buddha that was to focus not only on
stupas but also on many holy sites, which became centers of pilgrimage, and eventually on Buddha images too.
On the other hand, those Buddhists who had become monks and nuns took on the gathering and preservation of their
departed master’s teachings. According to tradition, a great council of 500 monks was held at Rajagriha,
immediately after the Buddha’s death, and all the Buddha’s sermons and the rules of the discipline were remembered
In the years that followed, the monks gradually unified their communal life. Like many other wandering mendicants
of their time, they were always on the move, coming together only once a year for the three months of the monsoon.
Gradually, these rain-retreats grew into more structured year-round settlements. As new communities developed, it
was inevitable that some differences in their understanding of both the Buddha is teaching and of the rules of the
order should arise. Within 100 years of the Buddha’s death, a second council took place at Vaisali, during which the
advocates of certain relaxations in the vinaya rules were condemned. Then, c.250 BC, the great Buddhist emperor
Asoka is said to have held a third council at Pataliputra to settle certain doctrinal controversies.
It is clear from the accounts of these and other Buddhist councils that whatever the unity of early Buddhism may
have been, it was rapidly split into various sectarian divisions. One of the earliest and most important of these
divisions was that between the Sthavira and the Mahasamghika schools. Within the former developed such
important sects as the Sarvastivada and the Theravadins, whose canon is in Pali and who today are the only
surviving representatives of the whole of the Hinayana, or “Lesser Vehicle,” of Buddhism.
The Mahasamghika, also a Hinayanist sect, died out completely, but it is important because it represents one of the
forerunners of the Mahayana doctrines. These doctrines were to include a different understanding of the nature of
the Buddha, an emphasis on the figure of the bodhisattva, and on the practice of the perfection.
In addition, within the Mahayana, a number of great thinkers were to add some new doctrinal dimensions to
Buddhism. One of these was Nagarjuna, the 2d-century AD founder of the Madhyamika School. Using subtle and
thoroughgoing analyses, Nagarjuna took the theory of dependent origination to its logical limits, showing that the
absolute relativity of everything means finally the emptiness of all things.
Another important Mahayana school arose in the fourth century AD when the brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu
sought to establish the doctrine of Vijnanavada–that the mind alone exists and that objects have no reality external
to it. This idealist doctrine and Nagarjuna’s emptiness were to play important roles in the further developments of
Buddhist thought outside of India. Within India itself, they paved the way for yet another stage in the elaboration of
the religion: the development of Buddhist tantra.
Tantric Buddhism, which is sometimes separated from the Mahayana Buddhism as a distinct “Thunderbolt-Vehicle,”
became especially important in Tibet, where it was introduced starting in the seventh century. It was, however, the
last phase of Buddhism in India, where the religion–partly by reabsorption into the Hindu tradition, partly by
persecution by the Muslim invaders–ceased to exist by the 13th century.
Before its demise in India, Buddhism had already spread throughout Asia. This expansion started at least as early as
the time of the emperor Asoka in the 3d century BC. According to tradition, this great monarch, who was himself a
convert to Buddhism, actively supported the religion and sought to spread the dharma. He is said to have sent his
own son, Mahinda, as a missionary to Sri Lanka. Their Buddhism quickly took root and prospered, and the island
was to become a stronghold of the Theravada sect. The Pali Canon was first written there in the first century BC;
later the island was to be host to the great Theravadin systematizer and commentator Buddhaghosa. Asoka is also
said to have sent missionaries to the East to what is now Burma and Thailand. Whatever the truth of this claim, it is
clear that by the first several centuries AD, Buddhism, accompanying the spread of Indian culture, had established
itself in large areas of Southeast Asia, even as far as Indonesia.
Also, tradition has it that another son of Asoka established a Buddhist kingdom in Central Asia. Whether or not this
is true, it is clear that in subsequent centuries more missionaries followed the established trade routes west and north
to this region, preaching the dharma as they went.
Throughout Asia, wherever Buddhism was introduced, its leaders tended to seek the support of kings and other
rulers of the state. The pattern of this relationship between a Buddhist king and the monastic community was given
its definitive formulation by Emperor Asoka in the 3d century BC. This was a symbiotic relationship in which, in
exchange for the allegiance and religious support of the sangha, the emperor became the patron and backer of the
To some extent, this pattern was extended to the laity as well. Everywhere, Buddhist monastic communities tended
to depend on the laity for food and material support. Although in some places the sangha as a whole became well to
do and the controller of vast monastic estates, traditionally monks were beggars and, in Southeast Asian countries,
they still go on daily alms rounds.
Traditionally also, Buddhist monks have been celibate. Thus, they depend on the faithful not only for food and
financial support but also for new recruits. Often children will enter a monastery and spend a number of years as
novices, studying, learning and doing chores. Then, following ordination, they become full members of the
community, vowing to uphold its discipline. Henceforth their days will be taken up in ritual, devotions, meditation,
study, teaching and preaching. Twice a month, all the monks in a given monastery will gather for the recitation of
the rules of the order and the confession of any violation of those rules.
One of the pivotal concepts behind the rites and festivals of Buddhist laity and monks is that of offering. This
includes, for the laity, not just the giving of food and of new robes to the monks, but also the offering of flowers,
incense, and praise to the image of the Buddha, stupas, bodhi trees, or, especially in Mahayanist countries, to other
members of the Buddhist pantheon such as bodhisattvas.
For the monks, the notion of offering extends also to the giving of the dharma in the form of sermons, to the
chanting of scriptures in rituals, and to the recitation of sutras for the dead.
All of these acts of offering are intimately involved in the concept of merit making. By performing them,
individuals, through the working of karma, can seek to assure themselves rebirth in one of the heavens or a better
station in life, from which they may be able to attain the goal of enlightenment.
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