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Buddhism, religion and philosophy founded in India 528 BCE by Siddhattha Gotama, called the Buddha. One of the great world religions, it is divided into two main schools: the Theravada in Sri Lanka and SE Asia, and the Mahayana in China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan. A third school, the Vajrayana, has a long tradition in Tibet and Japan. Buddhism has largely disappeared from its country of origin, India, except for the presence there of many refugees from the Tibet region of China and now, an increasingly new number of converts from the lower castes of Hinduism.

Basic Beliefs and Practices

The basic doctrines of early Buddhism, which remain common to all Buddhism, include the Four Noble Truths: existence is suffering (dukkha); suffering has a cause, namely craving and attachment; there is a cessation of suffering, which is Nibbana; and there is a path to the cessation of suffering, the Eightfold Middle Path of right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Buddhism characteristically describes reality in terms of process and relation rather than entity or substance.

Experience is analyzed into five aggregates (skandhas). The first, form (rupa), refers to material existence; the following four, sensations (vedana), perceptions (samjna), psychic constructs (samskara), and consciousness (vijnana), refer to psychological processes. The central Buddhist teaching of non-self (anatman) asserts that in the five aggregates no independently existent, immutable self, or soul, can be found. All phenomena arise in interrelation and in dependence on causes and conditions, and thus are subject to inevitable decay and cessation. The casual conditions are defined in a 12-membered chain called Dependent Origination (Paṭiccasamuppāda) whose links are: ignorance, predisposition, consciousness, name-form, the senses, contact, craving, grasping, becoming, birth, old age, and death, whence again ignorance.

With this distinctive view of cause and effect, Buddhism accepts the pan-Indian presupposition of samsara, in which living beings are trapped in a continual cycle of birth-and-death, with the momentum to rebirth provided by one's previous physical and mental actions kamma. The release from this cycle of rebirth and suffering is the total transcendence called Nibbana.

From the beginning, meditation and observance of moral precepts were the foundation of Buddhist practice. The five basic moral precepts, undertaken by members of monastic orders and the laity, are to refrain from taking life, stealing, acting unchastely, speaking falsely, and drinking intoxicants. Members of monastic orders also take five additional precepts: to refrain from eating at improper times, from viewing secular entertainments, from using garlands, perfumes, and other bodily adornments, from sleeping in high and wide beds, and from receiving money. Their lives are further regulated by a large number of rules known as the Pattimokha. The monastic order (Sangha) is venerated as one of the "three jewels," along with the Dhamma, or religious teaching, and the Buddha. Lay practices such as the worship of stupas (burial mounds containing relics) predate Buddhism and gave rise to later ritualistic and devotional practices.

Universal Religion

The Buddha was the first known person to teach a religion for all humankind rather than for a specific group or tribe. In addition, Buddhism teaches that the Buddha was not the first enlightened teacher to teach the Dhamma; that there were Buddhas before him and that there will be other Buddhas in the future. The Tipitaka refers to 28 previous Buddhas from previous aeons. Buddhism is also compatible with the possibility of life on other planets / aliens. Buddhism can exist on another planet, due to the fact that the Dhamma is a universal teaching, not specific to a certain culture, nationality, language, or tribe. A Buddha can exist on another planet and teach the Dhamma there.

Early Buddhism

India during the lifetime of the Buddha was in a state of religious and cultural ferment. Sects, teachers, and wandering ascetics abounded, espousing widely varying philosophical views and religious practices. Some of these sects derived from the Brahmanical tradition while others opposed the Vedic and Upanishadic ideas of that tradition. Buddhism, which denied both the efficacy of Vedic ritual and the validity of the caste system, and which spread its teachings using vernacular languages rather than Brahmanical Sanskrit, was by far the most successful of the heterodox or non-Vedic systems. Buddhist tradition tells how Siddhattha Gotama, born a prince and raised in luxury, renounced the world at the age of 29 to search for an ultimate solution to the problem of the suffering innate in the human condition. After six years of spiritual discipline he achieved the supreme enlightment and spent the remaining 45 years of his life teaching and establishing a community of monks and nuns, the sangha, to continue his work.

After the Buddha's death his teachings were orally transmitted until the 1st cent. BCE, when they were first committed to writing. Conflicting opinions about monastic practice as well as religious and philosophical issues, especially concerning the analyses of experience elaborated as the systems of Abhidhamma, probably caused differing sects to flourish rapidly. Knowledge of early differences is limited, however, because the earliest extant written version of the scriptures (1st cent. CE) is the Pali canon of the Theravada school of Sri Lanka. Although the Theravada [doctrine of the elders] is known to be only one of many early Buddhist schools (traditionally numbered at 18), its beliefs as described above are generally accepted as representative of the early Buddhist doctrine. The ideal of early Buddhism was the perfected saintly sage, arahant or arhat, who attained liberation by purifying self of all defilements and desires.

The Rise of Mahayana Buddhism

The positions advocated by Mahayana [great vehicle] Buddhism, which distinguishes itself from the Theravada and related schools by calling them Hinayana [lesser vehicle], evolved from other of the early Buddhist schools. The Mahayana emerges as a definable movement in the 1st cent. BCE., with the appearance of a new class of literature called the Mahayana sutras. The main philosophical tenet of the Mahayana is that all things are empty, or devoid of self-nature. Its chief religious ideal is the bodhisattva, which supplanted the earlier ideal of the arahant, and is distinguished from it by the vow to postpone entry into nirvana (Pali: nibbana)(although meriting it) until all other living beings are similarly enlightened and saved.

The bodhisattva is an actual religious goal for lay and monastic Buddhists, as well as the name for a class of celestial beings who are worshiped along with the Buddha. The Mahayana developed doctrines of the eternal and absolute nature of the Buddha, of which the historical Buddha is regarded as a temporary manifestation. Teachings on the intrinsic purity of consciousness generated ideas of potential Buddhahood in all living beings. The chief philosophical schools of Indian Mahayana were the Madhyamika, founded by Nagarjuna (2d cent. CE), and the Yogacara, founded by the brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu (4th cent. CE). In this later Indian period, authors in different schools wrote specialized treatises, Buddhist logic was systematized, and the practices of Tantra came into prominence.

The Spread of Buddhism

In the 3d cent. BCE the Indian emperor Asoka greatly strengthened Buddhism by his support and sent Buddhist missionaries as far afield as Syria. In succeeding centuries, however, the Hindu revival initiated the gradual decline of Buddhism in India. The invasions of the White Huns (6th cent.) and the Muslims (11th cent.) were also significant factors behind the virtual extinction of Buddhism in India by the 13th cent.

In the meantime, however, its beliefs had spread widely. Sri Lanka was converted to Buddhism in the 3d cent. BCE, and Buddhism has remained its national religion. After taking up residence in Sri Lanka, the Indian Buddhist scholar Buddhaghosa (5th cent. CE) produced some of Theravada Buddhism's most important scholastic writings. In the 7th cent. Buddhism entered Tibet, where it has flourished, drawing its philosophical influences mainly from the Madhyamika, and its practices from the Tantra.

Buddhism came to SE Asia in the first five centuries CE. All Buddhist schools were initially established, but the surviving forms today are mostly Theravada. About the 1st cent. A.D. Buddhism entered China along trade routes from central Asia, initiating a four-century period of gradual assimilation. In the 3d and 4th cent. Buddhist concepts were interpreted by analogy with indigenous ideas, mainly Taoist, but the work of the great translators Kumarajiva and Hsüan-tsang provided the basis for better understanding of Buddhist concepts.

The 6th cent. saw the development of the great philosophical schools, each centering on a certain scripture and having a lineage of teachers. Two such schools, the T'ien-t'ai and the Hua-Yen, hierarchically arranged the widely varying scriptures and doctrines that had come to China from India, giving preeminence to their own school and scripture. Branches of Madhyamika and Yogacara were also founded. The two great nonacademic sects were Ch'an or Zen Buddhism, whose chief practice was sitting in meditation to achieve “sudden enlightenment,” and Pure Land Buddhism, which advocated repetition of the name of the Buddha Amitabha to attain rebirth in his paradise.

Chinese Buddhism encountered resistance from Confucianism and Taoism, and opposition from the government, which was threatened by the growing power of the tax-exempt sangha. The great persecution by the emperor Wu-tsung (845) dealt Chinese Buddhism a blow from which it never fully recovered. The only schools that retained vitality were Zen and Pure Land, which increasingly fused with one another and with the native traditions, and after the decline of Buddhism in India, neo-Confucianism rose to intellectual and cultural dominance.

From China and Korea, Buddhism came to Japan. Schools of philosophy and monastic discipline were transmitted first (6th cent.–8th cent.), but during the Heian period (794–1185) a conservative form of Tantric Buddhism became widely popular among the nobility. Zen and Pure Land grew to become popular movements after the 13th cent. After World War II new sects arose in Japan, such as the Soka Gakkai, an outgrowth of the nationalistic sect founded by Nichiren (1222–82), and the Risshokoseikai, attracting many followers.

In the nineteenth century and especially in the twentieth century, Buddhism spread to the West, at first through immigrant Buddhists arriving from far East nations. It has spread to many Western born non-Asians in recent decades through conversion and now there are several thousand second and third generation Buddhists from non-Asian families in the West. The number of Buddhists in the world as reported in various studies and encyclopedias, ranges from 500 million to about 1.6 billion. The lower figure ignores those who follow more than one religion or utilizes figures provided by communist governments who oppose any counting of religious adherents. The correct number is more toward the higher number of this range. See Buddhists in the World.

See also