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With roughly 400 million adherents worldwide, Buddhism represents one of the world’s largest religious traditions. Originating in India, the majority of Buddhists are now found in China, Japan, North and South Korea, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tibet, and North and South Vietnam. Buddhism also spread to Western nations such as the United States and Canada beginning in the nineteenth century. Since its inception, Buddhism has developed along numerous trajectories and in different cultural settings. Though certain commonalities historically unite the various Buddhist communities—such as a commitment to the “Three Jewels of Refuge” (i.e., the Buddha, his teachings, and the Buddhist monastic community)—it is difficult to isolate a definitive set of beliefs and practices shared by all Buddhists.
Early History and Practices
The history of Buddhism begins with the career of Siddhártha Gautama. Scholars generally deem Gautama a historical figure who passed along to his followers the foundations of Buddhist philosophy and practice. Traditionally, Gautama was believed to have lived circa 560–480 BCE, while more-recent scholarship suggests the later dates of circa 485–405 BCE. Though Buddhists maintain that there have been numerous buddhas throughout history, most consider Gautama the Buddha for this age (though some hold that there can be more than one buddha per age). Accurately reconstructing the precise details of the Buddha’s life and teaching, however, proves difficult. The first biographies of his life did not appear until centuries after his death and it is often impossible to ascertain exactly where the biographies reconstruct the Buddha’s life according to ideal patterns as opposed to historical realities.
According to tradition, Gautama’s previous lives prepared him for his final reincarnation before achieving the status of Buddha. At age twenty-nine, Gautama’s life was profoundly altered when he ventured outside the palace and encountered “four signs”: an old man, a sick person, a corpse, and a mendicant (Buddhist sources indicate that the gods orchestrated these events). Troubled by what he saw, Gautama embraced the life of an ascetic for the next several years and searched for an answer to the suffering he had encountered. According to Gautama’s biographers, six years after leaving the palace he finally experienced enlightenment. One night he sat under a bodhi tree, determined not to leave until he found an answer to the perennial problems of suffering and death. Though some traditions differ as to the exact nature of his enlightenment that night, the biographers agree that Gautama achieved the status of a buddha; he eliminated the ignorance that trapped individuals in the suffering (duhkha) associated with the endless cycle of reincarnation.
Following this experience, the Buddha preached his first sermon, often referred to as the “first turning of the wheel of dharma.” Though it is important to note that many of the Buddha’s teachings reflect the influence of Hinduism, the Buddha thoroughly modified various Hindu concepts and did not embrace the Hindu caste system. The theme of his teaching revolved around the Four Noble Truths. The first Noble Truth stipulated the reality of suffering. Put simply, suffering persists throughout all the various stages of life. The second Noble Truth indicated that desire (tãØ£á) originated from ignorance (avidyá) and inevitably caused suffering. According to the Buddha, humans mistakenly posit the existence of an autonomous, permanent self (átman). As such, they inevitably experience suffering as they try to maintain a permanent hold on things that are constantly changing and impermanent. Instead, the Buddha’s teachings advanced the doctrine of “no-self” and insisted on the impermanence of all things. The third Noble Truth, the cessation of suffering (nirvá£a, literally “blowing out”), claimed it was possible to eliminate desire and ignorance and free an individual from suffering. Finally, the fourth Noble Truth pointed to the path that brings about the cessation of suffering, often referred to as the Eightfold Path. The path includes (1) right view, (2) right intention, (3) right speech, (4) right conduct, (5) right livelihood, (6) right effort, (7) right mindfulness, and (8) right concentration. This “Middle Path” avoids both the extreme of self-denial and the extreme of self-indulgence and leads an individual to recognize the impermanence of all things.
Often, the different parts of the Eightfold Path are grouped under three main headings: moral precepts, concentration, and wisdom. The moral precepts (sila) usually include basic prohibitions against killing, stealing, lying, sexual promiscuity, and intoxication (these are commonly accepted by most Buddhists, though monks and nuns usually adhere to more stringent guidelines). Concentration (samádhi) involves various forms of meditation that differ among Buddhist traditions. Generally, however, Buddhist meditation requires careful control of the process of breathing and discipline of the mind. Finally, wisdom (prajñá) reflects the necessary insights required to eliminate desire and ignorance and achieve enlightenment.
Following his experience of enlightenment, the Buddha continued to teach throughout northeastern India for the next forty-five years. With no named successor upon his death, a council of elders formed and orally perpetuated the Buddha’s teachings. Centuries later, the oral traditions associated with the life of the Buddha were codified in Buddhist scriptures; these scriptures contained material directly attributed to the Buddha (buddhavacana) as well as authoritative commentaries. The earliest extant canon, the Páli canon (also referred to as the Tripitaka), consists of Vinaya (monostic law), Sútras (the Buddha’s discourses), and Abhidhamma (commentaries). The Chinese canon and the Tibetan canon took shape at later dates and incorporated new material.
As Buddhism grew following the Buddha’s death, ritual practices developed along various trajectories. For example, though differences appeared among the various Buddhist traditions regarding their view of the Buddha, he remained a venerated figure for all Buddhists. Devotees lavished gifts on relics associated with the Buddha and annually celebrated his birth, enlightenment, and entrance into nirvana. Sites associated with the Buddha’s life soon became places of pilgrimage. These included his birthplace (Lumbiní), the setting where he achieved enlightenment (Bodh Gayá), the location of his first sermon (Deer Park), and his place of death (Kusinagara). Beginning in the common era, artists created images of the Buddha. Furthermore, Buddhist monastic communities (sa£gha) quickly formed after the Buddha’s death. Ordination ceremonies took shape for both monks and nuns, signaling their abandonment of worldly pursuits. Laypersons also began to venerate monks for their spiritual attainments and frequently showered them with gifts and offerings. Buddhist funeral and protective rites also emerged.
In time, Buddhism spread beyond India and also began to influence the activities of states. Beginning in the third century BCE, for example, Asoka (c. 300–232 BCE, the emperor in India, took on the title of “righteous king” (dharmaraja) and formally supported the monasteries. Asoka’s son, Mahinda (c. 270–c. 204 BCE), then carried the Buddhist message outside his homeland and attracted followers in Southeast Asia. At the beginning of the common era, Buddhist missionaries entered China and spread their message through the efforts of figures such as Bodhidharma (c. early fifth century CE) and Kumárajíva (350–409/413 CE). While early Hindu missionaries also accompanied traders and merchants and helped spread Hinduism to Southeast Asia during the same period, Buddhism had key advantages that facilitated its growth. In particular, unlike Hinduism, Buddhism operated outside of the caste system, allowing its followers to interact freely with others. (This advantage carried over into the twentieth century as the Indian politician B. R. Ambedkar gained a large following among fellow Dalits [“untouchables” within the Hindu caste system]; Ambedkar viewed Buddhism as a solution to the social inequality associated with the Hindu caste system and encouraged Hindus to convert.) Through these missionary efforts, different Buddhist traditions formed as Buddhist practices and beliefs often underwent significant modification as they took root in various cultural contexts.
Major Buddhist Traditions
The Theraváda (literally “doctrine of the elders”) tradition claims to adhere strictly to the Buddha’s original teachings. It treats the Páli canon as the only authoritative Buddhist scriptures and perpetuates the Hínayána tradition from the earliest days of Buddhism (within Buddhist literature, Hínayána, literally the “Inferior Way,” served as a pejorative term directed at more conservative Buddhists in contrast to followers of the later Maháyána tradition). Very strong in Burma (now Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, Theraváda first spread to Southeast Asia with the missionary activities of Mahinda in Sri Lanka. Unlike other Buddhist traditions that recognize several present buddhas and bodhisattvas, Theraváda focuses solely on the life of the historical Buddha. Ideally, every individual should imitate the Buddha’s example and achieve enlightenment through self-effort. For this reason, the monastic ideal of achieving personal enlightenment (arhat) serves as the focal point of Theraváda Buddhism. Monastic complexes—often consisting of a bodhi tree and images of the Buddha, as well as stupas where relics associated with the historical Buddha are enshrined—facilitate the veneration of the Buddha. According to tradition, it is impossible for laypersons to achieve enlightenment (in some locales, however, a form of temporary ordination has arisen that serves as a rite of passage into adulthood). For nonelite practitioners, ritual and meditation often provide a means to gain merit and improve their lot in life when reincarnated, or to better their present circumstances.
The Maháyána tradition (literally the “Great Way”) developed later than the Theraváda tradition and recast many of the more traditional Buddhist positions; it also eventually attracted a larger following than the Theraváda tradition. Particularly strong in China, Japan, Korea, and Tibet, many scholars date the beginning of Maháyána to around the second or first century BCE. Groups within this Buddhist tradition usually focus on particular teachings of the Buddha, referred to as the “second turning of the wheel of the dharma,” believed to have been passed along by a select group of Buddhists for centuries following his death. Unlike Theraváda Buddhism, Maháyána allows for the possibility of multiple buddhas to exist at the same time. Not surprisingly, alongside the historical Buddha, a number of other buddhas and bodhisattvas have appeared over the centuries. Accordingly, various Maháyána festivals have developed to venerate these figures. In general, Maháyána gives a higher priority to the bodhisattva, the person who puts off nirvana to help others achieve enlightenment; it also stresses the virtues of compassion (karu£á) and wisdom (prajñá). The Buddha’s life is reread as the quintessential model of the bodhisattva ideal that values highly a strong sense of communal responsibility. Usually, the Maháyána sense of communal responsibility is read as a reaction to the Theraváda arhat ideal in which Buddhists focus on achieving enlightenment for themselves in an individualistic quest for nirvana. Some scholars, however, have begun to complicate the sharp historical distinctions between the Maháyána and Theraváda traditions.
A third major tradition in Buddhism, Vajrayána (literally the “Diamond Way,” also referred to as tantric Buddhism) emerged around the third or fourth century CE as an amalgamation of Buddhism, Hinduism, and other popular religious practices in the region. According to Vajrayána teachings, principles in the world that appear to be fundamentally opposed are actually united and one. Enlightenment occurs when individuals grasp this reality. Whereas earlier Buddhist sources emphasized a long path to enlightenment, Vajrayána offers instead enlightenment in this lifetime through the disciplined practice of meditation. Often, adherents visualize various deities during meditation. Among elite practitioners, these deities are often considered representations of inner states within the individual, though this is less often the case for the average adherent.
Vajrayána proved very influential in the formation of Tibetan Buddhism, though the two terms are not synonymous. (Tibetan Buddhism is often considered a branch of Maháyána Buddhism, as is Vajrayána.) According to Tibetan sources, Buddhism arrived in the region during the reign of the first Buddhist emperor Songtsen Gampo (Tib., Srong-btsan sgam-po, d. 649/650). By the twelfth century various Tibetan Buddhist sects emerged. One particular religious order, the Gelukpa (Tib., Dge-lugs-pa, literally “Virtuous Ones”), began to rule in Tibet by the mid-seventeenth century.
Tibetan Buddhists consider the Dalai Lama (a member of the Gelukpa school) an incarnation of the lord of compassion (Avalokitesvara) and the rightful spiritual and temporal leader of the state. Each Dalai Lama is believed to be a reincarnation of the first Dalai Lama, Gedun Drupa (Tib., Dge-’dun-grub-pa, 1391–1474). As a result of the Dalai Lama’s role, Buddhism has historically been intimately tied to politics in Tibet more so than in any other state. The current Dalai Lama (b. 1935), however, lives in Dharmsala, India, following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 and his exile from there in 1959. Nevertheless, he has gained international recognition for his nonviolent protests against Chinese abuses of Tibetans and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
Various schools within the three main traditions named above (Theraváda, Maháyána, and Vajrayána) have developed over time. In Japan, for example, the Shingon school represents a form of tantric Buddhism, whereas the eclectic Tendai school adheres more closely to traditional Buddhist practices. Tendai was eventually overshadowed by its more popular offshoots: Pure Land Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, and Nichiren Shóshú, a particularly missionoriented form of Buddhism that was reinvigorated beginning in the twentieth century through the Sóka Gakkai organization. Numerous other schools have also formed as distinct Buddhist movements within different Asian countries.
Buddhism has undergone important changes during the modern era. Beginning in the sixteenth century, Buddhist nations for the first time came into contact with Western culture as well as Western imperialism. At times, adherents adapted Buddhist practices to Western—and particularly Christian—ways, as can be seen in the adoption of Sunday meetings and Sunday schools by some Buddhists (in the West, some Buddhist groups also called themselves “churches”). In another sign of changes brought about through globalization, Buddhist societies formed to unite Buddhists worldwide. These include the Maha Bodhi Society (1891), the World Fellowship of Buddhists (1950), and the World Buddhist Sangha Council (1966).
Ultimately, Buddhism spread to the West during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One form of Maháyána Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, would eventually find a significant following in the United States. One of the most prominent subbranches of the Maháyána tradition, Pure Land Buddhism focuses on the figure of Amida Buddha, who was believed to have formed the “Pure Land” once he achieved buddhahood. In turn, individuals who devote themselves to the Amida Buddha are reborn in this Pure Land and achieve enlightenment. In a significant revision of traditional Buddhist teachings, Pure Land Buddhism emphasizes trust in the Amida Buddha as the key to enlightenment and places less stress on selfeffort. Scholars often point to the strong similarities between these teachings and aspects of Christianity to help explain the success of Pure Land Buddhism in the West.
Zen Buddhism, another Maháyána school, has also been successful in the West. Literally Japanese for “meditation,” the Zen tradition grew out of the Chan school in China and traces its lineage back to the historical Buddha. The movement stresses experience through the disciplined practice of meditation and often plays down the importance of Buddhist scriptures. There are three contemporary schools in Japan—Rinzai, Sótó, and òbaku—that perpetuate these highly specialized forms of meditation.
In the West, Rinzai Zen first gained attention when Shaku Sóen (1859–1919) attended the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Illinois, in 1893. He wrote books extolling Zen as a rational religion that fit well with modern trends. During the first half of the twentieth century, Shaku Sóen’s disciple, D. T. Suzuki (1870–1966), then continued to promulgate a form of Zen in the United States that was less rigorous than traditional Zen. As awareness of Zen grew in the United States, it eventually became incorporated into popular culture. Though sometimes criticized for promoting a superficial form of Zen, figures such as Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997), Jack Kerouac (1922–1969), Gary Snyder (b. 1930), and Alan Watts (1915–1973) developed what is commonly referred to as “Beat Zen.” Focusing on Rinzai Zen, which stresses sudden enlightenment, these figures embraced a popularized form of Zen during the social upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States. Here, Zen represented the ideals of liberation and freedom and served as a tool to combat the perceived materialism, imperialism, and consumerism of American society. In addition to Rinzai Zen, Sótó Zen (which lacks Rinzai Zen’s focus on sudden enlightenment and instead emphasizes quiet meditation) has also attracted a significant number of adherents in various parts of the United States as individuals such as Suzuki Shunryú (1904–1971) established meditation centers. The growth and popularity of both Rinzai and Sótó Zen in the United States during the twentieth century reflect the increased awareness of Buddhism in the West.
The very practical, empirical nature of Buddhism has also facilitated various forms of spirituality that intermix elements from other religious traditions with Buddhism. Thomas Merton (1915–1968) serves as a prominent example. Merton, an American Catholic monk, sought to develop a dialogue between Christian and Buddhist forms of meditation during the mid-twentieth century (see, for example, his Mystics and Zen Masters ). Also indicative of combinative trends, many Jews have either embraced Buddhism or sought to combine Buddhist insights with their own heritage (see, for example, Rodger Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India ). Some individuals have also combined Buddhist concepts with various aspects of Western science. While figures such as Watts sought to explain Zen using the terminology of Western science and psychology, others such as Mark Epstein (b. 1953) have also used Buddhist concepts to inform psychotherapeutic models.
Finally, Engaged Buddhism (sometimes referred to as Socially Engaged Buddhism) also represents a recent development within Buddhism. Initiated by figures such as the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh (b. 1926), the movement is in part a reaction to a perceived passivity in the contemporary practice of Buddhism. Followers attempt to enlist Buddhism on behalf of various causes and address social and ecological ills. Engaged Buddhism has attracted attention from Buddhist laypersons and monks in both the Eastern and Western world, and had an impact on mainstream Buddhism as a whole. Diverse in its forms and dispersed across the globe, Buddhism has shaped the religious sensibilities of countless adherents throughout history.
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