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Editors: Julie L. Carnagie , Michael J. O'Neal , J. Sydney Jones , Marcia Merryman Means , Neil Schlager , and Jayne Weisblatt
Date: 2007
World Religions Reference Library
From: World Religions Reference Library(Vol. 1: Almanac. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview; Culture overview
Pages: 31
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1150L

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Budhism is a religion based on the teachings of its founder, Siddhartha Gautama (563–483 BCE). The Buddha, or the "enlightened one" as he came to be known, taught that a person could escape the pain and suffering of life by eliminating desire. The way of living he established is also considered to be a philosophy, or a set of ideas through which to gain a better understanding of values and reality.

The Buddha searched for six years to learn the meaning of life, and he gained many followers in his lifetime. Since his death, dozens of different sects, or subgroups, have formed in Buddhism. The religion has spread from its native India to the rest of the Far East and to the West (the countries in Europe and the Americas). The great majority of its followers are in Asia. Estimates suggest that there are about 350 million Buddhists worldwide, or about six percent of the world's total population. It is the fourth-largest world religion, behind Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. Countries with large Buddhist populations include Thailand with 95 percent, Cambodia at 90 percent, Tibet with 65 percent, and Japan with 50 percent. Eight percent of China's population follows Buddhism, as does 0.7 percent of India's population. Buddhist followers in the United States comprise 1 percent of the population and 0.5 percent in the United Kingdom. Less than one percent of populations in Africa follow Buddhism.

History and development

The early history of Buddhism is bound up with the life of its founder, Siddhartha Gautama. That Siddhartha Gautama was an actual historical figure is generally accepted. He was born into a noble family at Lumbini, a site in the southwest of modern Nepal. His mother's name was Maha Maya. His father, Suddhodana, ruled over a small village and was part of the ruling Sakya clan. Most of what is known of the Buddha comes from later accounts rather than contemporary historical records made during Page 88  |  Top of Articlehis lifetime. In 1996, however, a team of archaeologists (scientists who study the remains of past human civilization) discovered a marker honoring the Buddha's birthplace set the by the emperor Ashoka in 250 BCE.

Siddhartha journeys to enlightenment

According to Buddhist legend, the Buddha's birth was no ordinary event: The story, which is similar to the story of the conception of Jesus Christ (c. 6 BCE–c. 30 CE) in Christian tradition, says that Siddhartha was conceived in a dream involving a white elephant carrying a lotus flower. This dream was interpreted as meaning that Maha's son would become either a great ruler or a spiritual leader. The child was named Siddhartha, meaning "one who has realized his goal." This name was combined with the family name, Gautama, and the clan name, Sakyamuni.

A week after his birth, Siddhartha's mother died. He was raised by his aunt and heavily protected by his father, who promised himself that his son would neither witness nor experience further unhappiness in his life. Thus, Siddhartha grew up on the family estate, well educated and prosperous but ignorant of the usual sorrows of life. At age seventeen, he married his cousin Yashodora, and they had a son, Rahula.

Siddhartha, however, grew restless with his comfortable life. Despite his father's efforts at shielding him from the realities of the world, he experienced four events that helped him understand the truth about the way the world works. Traveling through the town, he saw an old man, then a sick man, and then a dead man. These sights pained him and let him know that life was hard and full of suffering. His fourth encounter was with a beggar monk, a spiritual person who had given up all material goods. This man told Siddhartha that the way to deal with such sorrow and suffering is to become a beggar monk himself. So great was Siddhartha's sadness and feeling of emptiness that he decided to leave his family and wealth behind and search for enlightenment, or understanding the true nature of life and how to end its suffering.

For the next six years Siddhartha sought out the teachings of the Brahmans, the priesthood of Hinduism. He began to live the life of a monk, sleeping on the ground at night. He practiced meditation (seeking spiritual truth inside oneself through quiet and stillness) and fasted, going without food for long periods of time. None of this, however, helped him escape his sorrow. Finally, he decided that this extreme self-denial and discomfort might not be the way to enlightenment just as his earlier life of luxury had not been. He instead developed the "middle way," Page 89  |  Top of Articleavoiding extremes. By rejecting both extreme pleasure and extreme pain, he believed he might find true enlightenment.

One day Siddhartha seated himself under a banyan, or fig, tree. It is now called a Bo tree, short for bodhi (wisdom and enlightenment), for it was there that Siddhartha, after six years of searching, finally found enlightenment. According to legend, Siddhartha sat under the tree for seven weeks. Although he was tempted by the devil Mara he overcame the temptations and arrived at complete enlightenment. After this, he was called the Buddha, the Enlightened One. Sometimes he is also referred to as Sakyamuni Buddha, referring to his clan name, to differentiate him from earlier and later buddhas, or great spiritual teachers.

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A person who has attained enlightenment but, rather than entering a state of nirvana, chooses to stay behind to help others reach enlightenment.
A spiritual leader who has reached full enlightenment.
The Buddha:
The title of Siddhartha Gautama after he attained enlightenment.
The collection of moral laws that govern the universe.
Eightfold Path:
The path of the Buddha's teachings that can lead to the end of suffering.
The state of realization and understanding of life, a feeling of unity with all things.
Four Noble Truths:
The foundations of the Buddhist religion: that all life is suffering, that desire causes suffering, that suffering can end, and that ending suffering happens by following the path of the Buddha's teachings.
The result of good or bad actions in this lifetime that can affect this or later lifetimes.
Body of worshippers, as distinct from clergy such as monks and nuns.
A place where religious people such as monks live, away from the world and following strict religious guidelines.
The end of suffering, beyond time and space; the goal of all Buddhists.
Originally a mound marking the spot where the Buddha's ashes were buried. Rock pillars carved with the words of the Buddha are also sometimes called stupas.
The Buddhist sacred texts accepted by all branches of Buddhism.

The Buddha's teachings

The Buddha came to understand that all of life is suffering and that suffering was caused by desire. By ending desire, one could end the cycle of suffering and achieve nirvana, the end of suffering. Page 90  |  Top of ArticleThe way to achieve this was not through extreme denial or extreme indulgence, but by following a path of moderation, the middle way.

The Buddha decided to help others reach such awakening. He set out into the world of northern India to preach his message of the middle way. So powerful was his message of inner peace and harmony that in eight months the Buddha had won over twenty thousand followers. For the next forty-five years the Buddha and his growing group of disciples, or close followers, spread his message that suffering in life could be eliminated by following his teachings.

The core beliefs of Buddhism were developed by the Buddha largely in reaction to the dominant religious culture of the day, Hinduism, and to changing conditions in India. During the Buddha's lifetime old tribal societies were breaking up and being replaced by new urban civilizations. The Buddha was one of several new thinkers who responded to this upheaval with a new approach. He preached a religion without authority, without ritual or examination of the meaning of life, without tradition, without a creator-god, and without mystery and spiritualism. Instead, he set out a step-by-step approach to leaving one's feelings of sorrow and emptiness behind, called the Eightfold Path.

Buddhism formalizes as a religion

After the Buddha's death his followers began to establish a formal structure for Buddhism. The Buddha did not leave any formal records of his teachings or appoint levels of leadership to his followers. As a result, there was the possibility that those who took up the Buddha's teachings after his death could reinterpret his message. Soon after his death in the fifth century BCE, a council was called to establish a commonly agreed-upon version of the Buddha's teachings and his rules for monks. Those teachings and rules voted on by the monks became the basis for the central Buddhist text, the Pali Canon, which was originally written on palm leaves.

Differences soon emerged, however, between a group of more traditional believers, called the School of the Elders, and another, less traditional group. The School of the Elders focused on the personal pursuit of enlightenment. The other group believed in helping everyone to achieve enlightenment. This central difference ultimately led to a split between Buddhist followers. The more traditional group became known as Theravada, or "way of the elders." The other group became the Mahayana, or "majority." These divisions have remained throughout the history of Buddhism.

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About Buddhism

  • Belief. Buddhists believe that suffering is the central human condition and is caused by desire. Nirvana, or the end of suffering, can be reached by following a right course of action and thought in life. Buddhism's founder, Siddhartha Gautama (also known as the Buddha), describes these in his teachings.
  • Followers. Buddhism is the fourth largest world religion with 3.5 million believers worldwide, most of whom are in Asia.
  • Name of God. The Buddha did not suggest that a god was responsible for the creation of the universe or of humanity. In later years, schools such as Mahayana Buddhism elevated the Buddha to a godlike status. In some instances, the word "buddha" is used in a similar way to "god."
  • Symbols. The Buddhist International Flag represents Buddhist ideals of compassion, the middle path, blessings, purity and liberation, and wisdom. Other major symbols include the dharmachakra, or dharma wheel, and the bodhi tree.
  • Worship. Buddhists worship at temples, stupas (rock pillars), Buddhist centers, or in their own homes at small shrines. They may worship in a group or on their own.
  • Dress. Buddhist laypeople do not wear special clothing, though shoes are normally removed in temples and teaching halls. Yellow robes are standard attire for monks. A heavier deep-red robe is also worn by modern monks, especially in Tibet.
  • Texts. The primary text for all schools of Buddhism is the Pali Canon, also called the Tipitaka. It contains rules for monastic living, teachings of the Buddha, and explanations of philosophical questions. Another popular Buddhist text is the Dhammapada, a collection of the Buddha's sayings.
  • Sites. Lumbini, Nepal, is the birthplace of the Buddha and is one of the four most important pilgrimage sites for Buddhists. Other sites include Bodh Gaya, the place where he attained enlightenment; Sarnath, where he delivered his first sermon on how to avoid suffering; and Kusinagara, where he escaped from this life into nirvana.
  • Observances. Wesak is the most important holy day for Buddhists. Held on the full moon in May, it celebrates the Buddha's birth.
  • Phrases. Om mani padme hum is a mantra, or chant, prevalent in Buddhism, meaning "Hail the jewel in the lotus." It refers to the symbology surrounding the Buddha's miraculous birth.

Spreads throughout Asia

The spread of Buddhism was enhanced by the work of the emperor Ashoka (also called Asoka) of Maurya, in present-day India, who ruled from c. 273 to c. 232 BCE. Ashoka converted to Buddhism after a bloody struggle to gain power. Thereafter, this powerful emperor decided to devote himself to peace. He had thousands of Page 92  |  Top of Articlerock pillars, or stupas, erected with the words of the Buddha inscribed on them, calling for respect for all life. Ashoka organized missionaries, people who dedicated themselves to preaching the truths of their religion to others, to spread Buddhism beyond the borders of India. Some of these missionaries reached as far as Egypt and Greece.

Ashoka's son is thought to have brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka, and there the Theravada tradition has remained dominant ever since. The religion continued to spread throughout Asia, establishing strong footholds in China, Cambodia, Thailand, and Korea. China was first exposed to Buddhism in about 150 CE by missionaries from India. By the sixth century the religion had already gained two million followers. Buddhism spread to Japan in the thirteenth century CE, where it split into two major schools, Zen and Nichiren.

At about this time Buddhism also spread to Tibet, a region in the Himalayan mountains that is now part of China. It came to Tibet with Guru Rinpoche, the Indian master of what is known as Vajrayana, or Tantra, Buddhism. This is a form of Mahayana Buddhism that employs techniques, including meditation and chanting and other methods, to speed up the way to enlightenment. By the sixteenth century Vajrayana had become the dominant branch of Buddhism in Tibet under its leader, the Dalai Lama. Until the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1949, the dalai lama was both the spiritual and political leader of Tibet. The fourteenth dalai lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was born in 1935 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

Meanwhile, in India, the religion gradually declined in popularity, with the majority of Indians continuing to follow Hindu traditions. After the death of Ashoka, a new dynasty called the Sunga (185–73 BCE) came to power. The Sunga dynasty persecuted (mistreated) Buddhists, killing monks and destroying their monasteries. Despite this treatment, the religion flourished and reached its greatest numbers in India by the fifth century CE. Afterward, however, Buddhism declined in the Buddha's native land. Following the Muslim invasion of India in the twelfth century, Buddhism in India virtually came to an end. By the late twentieth century less than 1 percent of Indians were Buddhists.

Buddhism becomes known in the West

It was not until the nineteenth century that Buddhism became well-known and understood in the West. Philosophers (people who study questions of moral behavior and the meaning of life), such as the German Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), helped to bring the religion before the public. Schopenhauer's Page 93  |  Top of Article
Buddhism spread in many directions after its founding in India, going north, south, and east to other parts of Asia before eventually reaching the West. Buddhism spread in many directions after its founding in India, going north, south, and east to other parts of Asia before eventually reaching the West. Reproduced by Permission of Thomson Gale. writings popularized the Buddhist idea of ending desire as a cure for emotional pain. Buddhism took root in small communities in England and also spread to the United States, where the arrival of Chinese laborers helped to popularize the religion. American writers such as Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), and the New England transcendentalists, who believed in the unity of all nature, were also influenced by Buddhist principles. Another milestone in popularizing Buddhism was the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Here speakers such as Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933) and D. T. Suzuki (1870–1966) helped introduce Theravada and Zen to the United States.

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Following World War II (1939–45; a war in which the United Kingdom, United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan) interest in Buddhism was renewed in the West. Zen Buddhism became particularly popular in the United States during the 1950s. As U.S. servicemen returned from war in Japan and in Korea, they sometimes brought with them an interest in Asian culture, including Zen. They shared these interests once back home, contributing to the spread of Buddhism in the United States. The writings of scholar D. T. Suzuki and the work of philosopher Alan Watts (1915–1973) on Zen Buddhism influenced a new generation of people seeking answers to questions about life.

Tibetan Buddhism has become another very popular form of Buddhism in the United States in the twenty-first century. The spread of Buddhism has also been enhanced in the United States by waves of immigration from Buddhist countries in Asia. Despite its growing popularity, only 1 percent of the U.S. population is Buddhist. European nations also have a small presence of Buddhists, but their presence continued to increase slowly in the early twenty-first century.

Sects and schisms

Buddhism had already split into two main branches, or schools, by the first century BCE. In the early twenty-first century there exist three main types of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Theravada means "Doctrine of the Elders," and it bases its practices and beliefs on the original teachings of the Buddha as gathered in the Pali Canon. It is sometimes referred to as the Hinayana branch, or Small Vehicle, but this is not considered to be a polite term for Theravada. Theravada has a strict interpretation of the Buddha's teachings and places great emphasis on the final step in the Eightfold Path, right concentration. Meditation and contemplation (deep thought) are considered to be the best ways to attain enlightenment. Theravada is most popular in southeast Asia and is sometimes referred to as Southern Buddhism. Theravada is followed by 38 percent of Buddhists, or 124 million people, in the early twenty-first century. It is the main religious tradition in Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. It is also found in parts of China, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

The word Mahayana means "Greater Vehicle." Mahayana Buddhism is sometimes called Northern Buddhism because it is most popular in Page 95  |  Top of Articleparts of Asia north of India, such as China and Japan. Mahayana Buddhists are less strict in their interpretation of the Buddha's teachings. They also focus on teachings given later in the Buddha's life. While Theravada Buddhists give reverence, or great respect, only to the Buddha, Mahayana Buddhists recognize may bodbisattvas, or enlightened beings who are like gods and help others on the path. Achieving enlightenment and nirvana, however, may take several lifetimes.

At the time of Mahayana's development, people were accustomed to worshipping many gods. It was difficult for them to accept a belief system that did not have this feature. The Mahayana school responded to this need by saying that the Buddha was both a man and a godlike being, who used his enlightenment to help others. Many other deities (gods) and bodhisattvas populate the Mahayana faith, including Kuan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion and mercy, and Wenshu, the bodhisattva of wisdom. Mahayana Buddhism is most commonly practiced in Nepal, Vietnam, Korea, China, Japan, Tibet, and Mongolia. It is followed by 56 percent of all Buddhists, or about 185 million people.

The third major school of Buddhism, Vajrayana, or "Diamond Vehicle," is a sub-school of Mahayana. It is sometimes called the Tantric branch. Vajrayana developed during the fifth and sixth centuries CE. Its practices are intended to bring a person to quick enlightenment. Its teachings are based on texts called Tantras, which describe meditation and techniques for Buddhist practice. Some of these techniques include yoga (a physical and spiritual practice that can include holding difficult physical positions for some time), chanting or repetition of mantras, and the creation of mandalas (circular diagrams with spiritual significance, usually created with colored sand). Tibetan Buddhism is the most well-known form of Vajrayana Buddhism. Vajrayana Buddhism is followed by 6 percent of Buddhists.

Smaller schools

Within these three main schools, there are many sub-schools. Pure Land Buddhism developed in China. It tells of a fabled heavenly land in the West that is a midway point on the way to nirvana. This domain is ruled by the spirit of the popular buddha Amitabha. Those believers who do not have the ability to reach nirvana can call upon Amitabha at their death to be reborn in the Pure Land. Teachers there will help them to reach the ultimate goal of nirvana.

China also developed a meditation-centered branch of Buddhism called Ch'an. Ch'an spread in the twelfth century to Japan, where it changed into Zen Buddhism. Zen teaches that the way to become a Page 96  |  Top of Articlebuddha (spiritual leader) is through self-knowledge, and the way to achieve self-knowledge is through meditation. Although other schools of Buddhism use meditation, the practice is central to Zen Buddhism. Zen does not rely on sacred writings or the followings of a specific teacher, as is common in many other religions. Instead, Zen often uses koans, or question-and-answer sessions between masters and students. The questions asked in the koans often seem illogical and require great self-examination to understand. They are thought to help the person gain greater self-knowledge and achieve enlightenment, or satori.

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Indian Protestantism

Religious writer Huston Smith argues that Siddhartha Gautama was something of a "rebel saint." Writing in The Religions of Man (1965), Smith noted that Buddhism "must be seen against the background of the Hinduism out of which it grew." Smith went on to note that Buddhism was largely "a reaction against Hindu perversions—an Indian Protestantism." By "perversions," Smith was referring to the elaborate ceremonies and power of the priests, or Brahmins, in the Hinduism of Siddhartha's time. The Buddha felt that these developments had sent Hinduism in the wrong direction, more interested in show and ceremony than in helping the common people.

Just like the Protestant revolt against Catholicism, Buddhism sought to cut through what it saw as hypocrisy, or falseness, in the older religion. Unlike Hinduism, with its Brahman priestly class, the Buddha preached a religion free of authority and free from a chain of command for leadership and power. Each individual, he said, should do his or her own religious seeking and not trust the word of some priest or preacher. This is illustrated in the Buddha's words from the Dhammapada: "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense."

The Buddha also encouraged religious beliefs that did not focus on ritual and tradition. Hinduism had a large number of rites and prayers to the gods. The Buddha felt that such rituals served as worldly distractions that kept a person from enlightenment. Soothsayers and prophets, those who claimed to see into the future, played a large part in Hinduism. The Buddha thought such methods were only for those looking for easy answers to life's difficult questions. Instead, the Buddha offered a religion very different from the Hinduism of the day. Buddha focused on the condition of the human mind rather than on metaphysics. He used experience and reason to arrive at his principles of living, and did not rely on ceremony or the words of ancient priests. He created a religion of social equals, rejecting the caste, or class, system in India.

Basic beliefs

Buddhism concentrates on the concept of dukkha, or suffering, and how to avoid it. In the Buddha's first lesson, which came to be called "Setting Page 97  |  Top of Articlein Motion the Wheel of the Law or Truth," he announced the Four Noble Truths. These provide the foundation for all of Buddhism. The First Noble Truth is that existence contains suffering, physical, emotional, and spiritual. The Second Noble Truth explains that suffering exists because of tanha, or desire. All desire in life leads to suffering. The Third Noble Truth then declares that to be free of suffering one must first be freed from desire. The Fourth Noble Truth states that release from desire and suffering can be achieved by following the Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path consists of eight steps:

right understanding;

right thought;

right speech;

right action;

right livelihood;

right effort;

right mindfulness; and

right concentration.

Each step on the Eightfold Path can be followed by anyone willing to dedicate him or herself to it. Right understanding means to begin the journey by knowing the Four Noble Truths and the Buddha's teachings. Right thought is to be dedicated to practicing Buddhism and caring for others. One practices right speech when one does not lie, speak harshly of others, or gossip. Right action consists of following what are called the Five Precepts. These are to not kill, not steal, not overindulge in activities involving the senses, not lie, and not drink alcohol to excess.

To follow right livelihood, a person should avoid working in jobs that are harmful to others, such as trading in weapons or alcohol, or in anything that shames or injures others. Right effort can be practiced by promoting positive qualities in one's self, such as improving one's knowledge of the Buddha's teachings or completing an assignment on time. Right mindfulness is when one does something with one's full attention. The final step on the Eightfold Path is right concentration, which means to focus the mind, usually through meditation.

The steps of the Eightfold Path are sometimes grouped into three categories: wisdom (including right understanding and thought), meditation (right effort, mindfulness, and concentration), and morality (right speech, action, and livelihood). Buddhists rely on their community, or Page 98  |  Top of Article
The buddbas birth is depicted with him as a young child, standing on a lotus flower and surrounded by devotees, A dream by his mother before he was born predicted that he would become a great ruler or a great spiritual leader. The buddba's birth is depicted with him as a young child, standing on a lotus flower and surrounded by devotees, A dream by his mother before he was born predicted that he would become a great ruler or a great spiritual leader. © Leonard De Selva/Corbis. sangha, to help them on their paths. A person following these steps can learn to understand completely the Buddha's teachings on suffering and impermanence and achieve enlightenment and nirvana. Nirvana is when a person stops the cycle of suffering and rebirth.

All things are related, all things change

Among other central principles of early Buddhism is the concept of the nonexistence of a soul, or anatman. The Buddha declared that separate souls for individuals that remained distinct after death do not exist. Instead, he taught that each person is part of the rest of humanity, but in the most basic way, just as one candle flame is part of the general class of fire. Related to this is the concept of emptiness, or sunyata. The Buddha explained that sunyata meant that things do not exist on their own but are part of a larger universal network or web of all things and beings. The world exists as it is because of the presence of everything in it. The Buddha also noted that there were corresponding opposites in the universe. The Buddha determined that if there was suffering, there must also be no suffering.

Another major principle of Buddhism is the idea of the impermanence of all things, anicca. By failing to understand that existence is impermanent, people suffer. For the Buddha the idea of emptiness means that Page 99  |  Top of Articlethere is no separate self. Rather, people are all part of the same network or fabric. In a sense, reaching nirvana means losing one's individual identity.

Buddhism's different schools

Early Buddhism was strict about maintaining the belief that there was no supreme being or god. When the Mahayana school formed, a number of deities, or gods, developed out of it. These deities, called bodhisattvas, assist Mahayana Buddhists on their paths.

Many schools of Buddhism have their own separate beliefs and practices in addition to such core principles. For example, Tibetan Buddhists believe in physical reincarnation, or the soul's rebirth into another body, of buddhas. When a lama, or leader of Tibetan monks, who is thought to be a buddha dies, the members of his monastery begin searching for the child who is that lama reborn. In Japan the Zen school of Buddhism relies heavily on meditation to achieve enlightenment. Another school of Japanese Buddhism is Nichiren Buddhism, named after a thirteenth-century Japanese monk. Nichiren believed that all that was needed for enlightenment was knowledge of the Lotus Sutra, one of the most sacred writings in Mahayana Buddhism. Nichiren taught his disciples that chanting the mantra Namu-myoho-renge-kyo (or "homage to the Lotus Sutra") would bring the seeker to enlightenment.

Although Buddhists worldwide have very different ways of attaining enlightenment, all of them share some core beliefs. These are best summarized in what is known as the Three Jewels. The jewels include a belief in the Buddha, a belief in dharma, or the universal moral law that the Buddha's teachings reveal, and a belief in the sangha, the community of fellow believers. When one wants to become a Buddhist and enter on the dharma, one recites the following prayer to an ordained monk or nun: "I go to the Buddha for refuge / I go to the Dharma for refuge / I go to the Sangha for refuge." Also central to nearly all schools of Buddhism is the practice of meditation.

Sacred writings

The oldest Buddhist sacred texts are called the Pali Canon and contain about four million words. They were written in the ancient Pali language and are also referred to as the Tipitaka, or "three baskets," because they are divided into three parts. The first part of the Pali Canon is a section Page 100  |  Top of Articleon monastic law. Its 227 rules advise monks and nuns on how to handle certain situations and relationships between the sangha and the laypeople. The second Tipitaka tells the teachings of the Buddha. It details more than ten thousand sutras, or teachings, including guidance on behavior and meditation. The Dhammapada, a collection of the Buddha's sayings and lessons, is part of the second Tipitaka, and is a much-used reference for many Buddhists across all schools. The third Tipitaka contains notes on how to search for wisdom and self-understanding. This section includes songs, poetry, and stories from the Buddha's previous lives. The three sections of the Tipitaka are also called the Discipline Basket, the Discourse Basket; and the Higher Knowledge of Special Teachings Basket.

Theravada Buddhism uses the Pali Canon as its official sacred text. The teachings of the Pali Canon were determined during the First Buddhist Council, held shortly after the Buddha's death. They were passed down orally for more than one hundred years before being written down around the third century BCE.

Mahayana Buddhism developed and revealed more than two thousand new passages to be added to the Buddhist collection of sacred texts. Mahayana tradition tells that many of these sutras were kept secret and only released when people were ready to hear them. They were written between 200 BCE and 200 CE. The Lotus Sutra, or Suddharma-Pundarika Sutra ("White Lotus of the True Dharma"), is the most popular Mahayana text. It includes discussions on the importance of becoming a bodhisattva and of realizing one's essential Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is present in every person and allows them to grow and obtain greater understanding.

Another important Mahayana text is the Prajnaparamita, or "Perfection of Wisdom" sutras, which includes the "Heart Sutra" or "Diamond Sutra." Only a few pages long, the Diamond Sutra contains some of the basic principles of Mahayana Buddhism, including its view of emptiness, nirvana, human nature, and reality. Different Mahayana sub-schools use different sutras as their central texts. Among these writings are the Pure Land Sutra, in which the Buddha describes to his follower Ananda the heaven called Pure Land and how to be reborn there; the Mumon-kan (Gateless Gate), containing the most well-known Zen koan collections; and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which informs Vajrayana Buddhists about the spiritual opportunities available immediately after death.

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The dharmachakra is a sacred symbol representing the Buddhas first teachings after enlightenment, The eight spokes of the wheel stand for each step on the Eightfold Path, The deer statues symbolize Deer Park, where the Buddha gave his first ser The dharmachakra is a sacred symbol representing the Buddha's first teachings after enlightenment, The eight spokes of the wheel stand for each step on the Eightfold Path, The deer statues symbolize Deer Park, where the Buddha gave his first sermon. © Christine Kolisch/Corbis.

A further important text for Buddhists is a book called Mulamadhyamaka-Karika, which was written around 150 CE by the Indian monk Nagarjuna. The system of thought detailed by Nagarjuna discusses an important foundation in Buddhism. It is called Madhyamaka, or "the middle way." The phrase "middle way" is often used to describe Buddhism. It illustrates the Buddha's belief, as discussed by Nagarjuna, that one must avoid extremes in order to achieve enlightenment, including extreme severity or harshness and extreme indulgence or ease.

Sacred symbols

Buddhism is rich in symbols. Many of the different schools find value in different sacred images. Some of the most prominent symbols are the dharmachakra (dharma wheel), bodhi tree, Buddhist flag, vajra (thunderbolt), and mandala. The dharmachakra is one of the most well-known Buddhist symbols. It is an eight-spoked wheel signifying the Buddha's turning of the Wheel of Truth, referring to the Buddha's first lesson after he achieved enlightenment. The eight spokes on the wheel represent each step on the Eightfold Path. The center of the wheel is a circle that contains three pieces: a hub, a spoke, and a rim. The hub stands for the Buddhist principle of discipline; the spoke, for wisdom; and the rim represents concentration.

The bodhi tree and leaves from the tree are sacred items in Buddhism. At the time of the Buddha's life, many people in India greatly Page 102  |  Top of Articlerespected and even worshipped trees. They were seen as a symbol of wisdom and immortality. Hindu writings describe a divine tree with roots in heaven and branches in the underworld, connecting all beings. For Buddhists, the bodhi tree is held to be sacred because the Buddha achieved enlightenment after meditating under it. Influenced by the existing culture and dominant religion of the time, Buddhist followers began to see in the bodhi tree a representation of the Buddha and his teachings.

The Buddhist flag represents all of Buddhism. Developed in 1880 by American Henry S. Olcott (1832–1907), the flag has five colors that represent five different Buddhist principles. Blue represents universal compassion; yellow is for the middle path; red is blessings; white is purity and liberation; and orange represents wisdom. The colors appear vertically and are repeated horizontally in a single column on the right margin of the flag, with blue on top and orange on the bottom. The combination of these colors represents Buddhist unity worldwide. The flag was officially accepted by the World Buddhist Congress in 1952.

The vajra, or thunderbolt, is a sacred object to followers of Vajrayana Buddhism. It is usually made of brass and symbolizes that which cannot be destroyed. It looks like a vertical staff with two prongs each reaching out diagonally from the top and bottom.

Perhaps one of the most visually familiar Buddhist symbols is the mandala. It is often used by Vajrayana Buddhists. A mandala is an elaborate image constructed to help a Buddhist concentrate in meditation. The creation of a mandala can be a form of meditation all on its own. There are many different kinds of mandalas, and each teaches different lessons depending on the different objects it contains. Every object in the mandala has significance, reminding the meditator of a particular principle or idea. Such objects include images of deities and shapes, including diamonds, bells, vajra, dharmachakra, and lotus flowers. The center of every mandala represents the Buddha. Mandalas can be made of colored sand, paper, and fabric. They take several days to create and are destroyed a short time later. This process of creation and destruction is also symbolic. It represents the impermanence of all things.


Worship in Buddhism basically takes two forms. The first is the practice of veneration, or of showing respect and admiration, for the Buddha, other buddhas, and bodhisattvas. For followers of the Theravada branch, Page 103  |  Top of Articlethe Buddha is the sole object of veneration, but for believers in Mahayana Buddhism, all buddhas and bodhisattvas are venerated. Such respect can be demonstrated by offering gifts to images of these revered ones in the forms of food, flowers, incense, or water in beautiful bowls. Such images might be paintings or statues at a temple or some relic or physical reminder of a buddha. For example, the temple of Kandy in Sri Lanka has a tooth of the Buddha and has become a holy place of pilgrimage for Buddhists as a result.

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Mahayana Deities

Mahayana Buddhists believe in bodhisattvas, figures who have achieved enlightenment but have turned away from nirvana to help others. In Mahayana practice, bodhisattvas have become like minor gods and saints. The most powerful of them are awaiting reincarnation in heaven, which is not the same thing as achieving nirvana. Mahayana Buddhists direct their prayers for assistance to the bodhisattvas.

The most popular of the Mahayana bodhisattvas is Avalokitesvara, a god of compassion or sympathy. Able to take any form to help humans, this deity grants requests to people who chant his name. Avalokitesvara can be represented as either a man or a woman, and (s)he is shown in statues and paintings with several pairs of arms sprouting from his/her body. In the palm of each hand is an eye of wisdom. Legend has it that Avalokitesvara has a thousand arms in order to better help all those who ask for assistance.

In China, because compassion is considered a female characteristic, Avalokitesvara is pictured as a beautiful woman wearing a white robe and is called Kuan Yin. One legend of Kuan Yin says that she was the daughter of a cruel man who wanted her to marry a wealthy man. Kuan Yin was very religious, though, and wanted to be a nun at a temple. Her father made the monks give her difficult chores to discourage her. Kuan Yin, however, was so good that the animals around the temple helped with her chores and convinced the father to allow his daughter to keep her religious life.

Another popular deity is Maitreya, also known as the Laughing Buddha. Loving and friendly, this deity is based on an early Zen monk who was known for his kindness. He is known as the Laughing Buddha because he is most often shown with a round belly sticking out of his robes, and with a big smile on his face. Rubbing his belly is supposed to bring good luck.

A third prominent deity is Majushi, also known as Wenshu in China. This bodhisattva never grows old and comes to people in their dreams as a beggar to help them reach enlightenment. He is shown holding a sword of wisdom in his right hand and a book in his left.

Another means of showing respect is by meditating on the qualities of enlightened bodhisattvas. For Buddhists, meditation is like prayer in other religious traditions. It focuses the mind and prepares it to understand or receive higher forms of knowledge or insight. There are two Page 104  |  Top of Articlebasic forms of meditation for Buddhists: stabilizing and analytical. In stabilizing meditation, the person is attempting to develop his or her powers of concentration. A simple technique used in stabilizing is to focus on one's breathing and then to clear the mind of all thought. Once the mind is clear, the person can focus on one Buddhist concept at a time. For example, a person might concentrate on the idea that life is impermanent and what that means to him or her.

Chanting a mantra or religious phrase is another meditation technique. Such mantras are generally in Sanskrit and are believed to be words used by a buddha when in deep meditation. The most frequently used mantra, especially in Tibetan Buddhism, is om mani padme hum, which is usually translated as "Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus." The jewel represents the teaching of the Buddha, while the lotus is the symbol of wisdom. By clearing the mind, a person prepares for analytical meditation, which allows for insights or sudden understanding. Western psychologists explain such thoughts as coming from the unconscious. In Buddhism, these insights lead to enlightenment.

Meditation requires deep concentration and a lack of distraction. As a result, many Buddhists need to meditate somewhere quiet and private. In some countries with a Theravada tradition, such as Thailand, a layperson, typically a man, can actually join a monastery for a short period of time in order to build up his powers of concentration before returning to life outside the monastery. While in the monastery, these laypeople live by strict Theravada principles. This means that they try to remain pure in thought and deed and go on alms rounds with the monks, observing silence all the while. Alms are donations of food, drink, or other objects. Personal possessions are limited to one pair of underwear, two yellow robes signifying discipline, a belt, a razor, a needle, a water strainer, and a bowl for collecting alms. During their stay they are educated in the principles of Buddhism and given instruction by the monks in right living. Once back from the monastery, these laypeople maintain small shrines in their homes, may go to preaching halls rather than temples to hear teachings, and visit sacred sites on pilgrimages.

The second major form of religious practice and worship involves the concept of dana, or generosity. It also deals with the relationship between the lay community and the monks and nuns. Monks and nuns represent a higher form of spiritual achievement. They share this experience and knowledge with laypeople through their examples, by teaching lessons Page 105  |  Top of Articlefrom the sacred texts, and by holding ceremonies throughout the year. In return, the Buddhist lay community supports the monks and nuns with offerings of gifts and food. Theravada lay Buddhists give food to monks daily when the monks go on their begging rounds, or pindapata. Laypeople also help out with chores at temples, cooking and washing for the monks, or putting fresh flowers on a shrine. Laypeople in some Theravada countries provide all the food, clothing, and medicine for the sangha. The concept of dana, of generosity and gift-giving, helps to unite the community of laypeople and monks and nuns in the monasteries.

Buddhist monks receive alms from laypeople in Thailand, Monks may receive all of their food in alms, and eat only what they are given. For the laypeople, giving alms is a way to build merit. Buddhist monks receive alms from laypeople in Thailand, Monks may receive all of their food in alms, and eat only what they are given. For the laypeople, giving alms is a way to build merit. © Kevin R. Morris/Corbis.

Where worship happens

Veneration and the practice of dana are used on their own and also as part of rituals and celebrations throughout the Buddhist year. Unlike religions such as Christianity and Judaism, Buddhism does not have regular weekly services. The closest thing to such a weekly tradition comes in Theravada Buddhism with the uposatha, days in which to renew a commitment to the religion. These days come on the first, eighth, fifteenth, and twenty-third days of the lunar month, which are determined by the phases of the moon and not by the movement of the sun as in the Western calendar. On these days lay Buddhists, those who are not nuns or monks, will visit the temple or the local monastery. They listen to monks reading from a Pali sutra or delivering a sermon or lesson, and they make offerings of food and clothing to the monks and nuns. They will also meditate on the Five Precepts.

Buddhists can worship at home, at a temple, or at a stupa, a stone pillar or burial mound inscribed with sayings of the Buddha. A Buddhist worshipping at home generally maintains a small shrine in a private area with a statue of the Buddha, candles, and an incense burner. Tibetan Buddhists often also have a photograph of their spiritual teacher on the home shrine. Other Buddhists may place Buddhist texts or Buddhist symbols, such as prayer beads or a bell, representing the enlightened mind, on their shrine. Buddhists pray to the Buddha or other buddhas at their home shrine, depending on the tradition. They usually bow before the image of the Buddha or buddhas as they worship. Buddhists also make offerings of food, incense, and water at their household Page 106  |  Top of Articleshrines, just as they would in a temple or at a stupa. By making such offerings, and by meditating and practicing dana, Buddhists build merit, or credit for good deeds. This merit helps to determine what kind of life the Buddhist will experience with rebirth, and how close he or she is coming to enlightenment.

Temples and stupas

Buddhist temples, such as Cambodia's Angkor Wat and the temples at Sukothai in northern Thailand, are built to symbolize the five elements: water, air, fire, earth, and wisdom. The base of such temples is square, symbolizing the earth, and comes to a point at the top, representing wisdom. Buddhist temples generally have statues and shrines to the Buddha or to buddhas and bodhisattvas. For the followers of Theravada, only images of the Buddha are used as aids to meditation, focusing on his virtue. But Mahayanists worship many different buddhas and bodhisattvas. Images and statues of these, especially in Tibet and China, are included in the temples and are thought to have miraculous or supernatural powers. In China and Japan, Buddhist temples are called pagodas and are built several stories high, with a curved roof and a tower on top.

Though most Buddhist temples are found in Asia, there are also Buddhist temples and centers in other parts of the world. For example, there are temples in more than one-half of the states in the United States. These temples often serve the dual purpose of both religious and cultural centers for the faithful. People must always remove their shoes before entering a Buddhist temple to show respect. While followers of Theravada typically go to the temple for uposatha and for festivals, in Mahayana Buddhism the faithful go to the temple whenever they choose, making offerings and praying to various images.

Stupas also serve as places of worship. Though once simple in form, stupas have become larger over the centuries, with some, such as the Shwedagon stupa in Rangoon, Burma (Myanmar), reaching one hundred feet in height. Many also are now decorated with beautiful carvings and gold. Outside the stupas the faithful either meditate on the teachings of the master buried there or walk around the structure three times to remind themselves of the three major elements of Buddhism: the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha.

Observances and pilgrimages

The most important holy days for Buddhists are New Year's, Wesak, Dharma Day, Kathina Day, and Sangha Day. The dates of these festivals can vary not only between Theravada and Mahayana branches, but also Page 107  |  Top of Article
Buddhists meditate inside a temple. Worship is often carried out at a temple or at a home shrine, before an altar with a statue of the Buddha, candles, incense, and flowers. Buddhists meditate inside a temple. Worship is often carried out at a temple or at a home shrine, before an altar with a statue of the Buddha, candles, incense, and flowers. Stephen Epstein/ponkawonka.com. from sect to sect and from country to country. Moreover, since Buddhists (except those in Japan) use the lunar calendar, the schedule of such holy days can be confusing for Westerners. The Buddhist year begins with the New Year's festival, symbolizing the death and rebirth of the year. In Theravada countries such as Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Laos, the New Year is celebrated for three days from the first full moon day in April. In Mahayana countries, the New Year usually starts on the first full moon day in January, and Tibetan Buddhists generally celebrate it in March. To prepare for the New Year, Buddhists clean their houses very thoroughly and perform cleansing rituals with water to drive out evil spirits. As with all the holy days of Buddhism, the three days of the New Year's celebration include visits to the temple to bring offerings of incense, cloth, flowers, and money for the monks. There are also processions through the streets carrying images of the Buddha, as well as feasting, dancing, and sports events.

Wesak (also spelled Vesak) is the most important of Buddhist holy days, celebrated on the full moon in May for Theravada countries. Page 108  |  Top of ArticleWesak takes its name from the name of the Indian month in which it is held. In Japan it is celebrated in April and is called Hana Matsuri. While some Buddhists celebrate this day only as the Buddha's day of birth, Theravada followers believe it also celebrates the day he became enlightened and died. Homes are cleaned and decorated, and lanterns are set out to symbolize enlightenment. In countries such as Cambodia and Thailand, large numbers of caged birds are set free and live fish are returned to rivers to symbolize the freedom that comes with enlightenment. In other Theravada countries religious processions circle the temple or stupa three times to symbolize the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. Plays that depict scenes of the Buddha's lives are also presented. Many Buddhists visit their local temples for chanting and teachings, and offerings are given to the monks. Gifts of food and clothing are also laid at the feet of the Buddha statue in the temple.

Dharma Day celebrates the beginning of the Buddha's teachings. Traditionally this celebration fell in the eighth lunar month and marked the time when the Buddha and his followers went into retreat for several months during the rainy season. The day is usually celebrated with teachings from the Buddha's first sermon at Deer Park. The retreat months (August to October) are called Vassa. This is a time for Buddhists to renew their belief. The end of this period is marked by the festival of Kathina (held within a month of the end of Vassa). This is a time when new robes are given to the monks by the people of the community.

Sangha Day, also called Magha Puja Day, is held on the full moon day of the third lunar month (March). It celebrates the religious community, or sangha, and recalls the time when more than one thousand enlightened monks gathered to hear the Buddha's first sermon, the Turning of the Wheel of Law or Truth. This sermon detailed the rules for monastic orders. In a tradition similar to Christmas, gifts are exchanged on Sangha Day.


Buddhists have four main places of pilgrimage: the Buddha's birthplace in Lumbini, Nepal; Bodh Gaya, a small town in India that is the site of the Buddha's enlightenment; Sarnath, also in India and sometimes called Deer Park, where the Buddha gave his first sermon regarding the Four Noble Truths; and Kusinagar, India, where the Buddha died at the age of eighty. Lumbini, in modern-day Nepal, is the most significant of pilgrimage sites for Buddhists. Tradition tells that it was here that the Buddha was born in about 563 BCE. In 1996 a team of archaeologists Page 109  |  Top of Articlesponsored by the United Nations began excavations and uncovered what they declared was the birth room or chamber of Siddhartha. This discovery finally resolved a longtime dispute between India and Nepal over which country could claim the Buddha's birthplace.

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Mudras are sacred hand gestures. Mudras in Buddhism can commonly be seen in statues and other images of the Buddha and bodhisattvas. In these images, they are meant to symbolize the presence of the divine and to relay a particular significance. They are used in meditation to aid in concentration and are also present in Indian classical dance to convey meaning.

There are several different kinds of mudras. The abhaya, or fearlessness, mudra is made by raising the right hand to the shoulder, with the palm of the hand facing outward and the fingers extended straight and together. The left arm rests along the side of the body. The abhaya mudra is meant to eliminate fear and provide peace and protection.

Often performed at the same time as the abhaya mudra is the varada, or wish-granting, mudra. It is usually made with the left hand, with the arm hanging naturally at the side, the open palm facing forward, and fingers extended. The extended fingers represent the five perfections: generosity, morality, patience, effort, and meditative concentration. This mudra stands for compassion and charity.

The dharmachakra, or wheel-turning, mudra is formed by touching together the tips of the thumb and index finger on both hands. The circle made by this positioning represents the Dharma Wheel. The hands are held in front of the heart to show that the teachings are from the Buddha's heart. This mudra symbolizes the occasion of the Buddha's first sermon after he achieved enlightenment.

There are two different forms of the dhyana, or meditation, mudra. When the left hand is resting in the lap and the right hand is in another position, the dhyana mudra represents wisdom. When both hands are in dhyana mudra, they are usually resting at the level of the stomach or thighs, with the right hand above the left, palms facing upward, and fingers extended. In some instances, the thumbs of the two hands will touch the fingertips. This mudra is one of meditation and concentration.

The anjali mudra is made by placing the palms of the hand and fingers flat together, often before the heart. Sometimes the head is slightly bowed. This gesture can be found in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity. Statues of the bodhisattvas may display the anjali mudra, which indicates respect and worship. Hindus use this gesture in greeting, while Christians may position their hands in this fashion when they pray.

The archaeologists uncovered a series of fifteen chambers buried about 16 feet (4.8 meters) beneath an ancient temple marking the site of the Buddha's birth. There they found a platform of bricks with a memorial stone on top that dated to 249 BCE. This was the year that Emperor Ashoka, who did much to promote the spread of Buddhism, was supposed to have placed a platform of bricks over the Buddha's Page 110  |  Top of Articlebirthplace. The archaeologists discovered a stupa nearby, also built by Ashoka, with coins and a figurine of the Buddha. In 2005, sixteen countries, including Nepal, Japan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Korea, Singapore, and Thailand, agreed to create a World Peace City in Lumbini.

The great stupa monument at Sanchi in India also attracts many pilgrims, as does the Tibetan holy city of Lhasa, the Yun-kang caves of China with their giant carved buddhas, and the Sri Lankan ruined temple complex of Anuradhpura. There are also many local temples, shrines, and stupas that attract the faithful, such as the Temple of Kandy in Sri Lanka that displays a tooth relic of the Buddha.

Buddhists go on pilgrimages for many reasons. For some, it is one more discipline in their practice and one that can add to spiritual development. Others go on pilgrimages to fulfill a vow or pledge made to the Buddha or buddhas. For example, a person might pray to one particular Buddhist saint in order to recover from sickness or to deal with a particular problem. As part of their promise, they travel to a pilgrimage site dedicated to that saint and make offerings. Still others go on pilgrimages as a way of blending a vacation with their religious practice. Pilgrimage is an important practice for Buddhists, but not one that is required of them. There are no specific times of the year when such pilgrimages are made, though many visit Lumbini or one of the Indian sites for Wesak.

Everyday living

Buddhism's central principle states that, in order to achieve nirvana, one must behave in a moral way, avoid harmful actions, and train and purify the mind. The Eightfold Path and the Five Precepts list measures that all Buddhists should honor in their daily lives. In order to respect the first precept, to refrain from harming living creatures, many Buddhists are vegetarians, meaning they do not eat food that comes from animals. Some Buddhists, following the precept about avoidance of intoxicating drink, do not drink alcohol. Others follow the Buddha's own recommendation about taking a middle path in such matters, practicing not abstinence, but moderation in food and drink. Right work, also a part of the Eightfold Path, helps to determine one's profession. Professions that help rather than harm people, such as teaching, construction of homes, and nature conservation, may be attractive to Buddhists.

The extent to which Buddhism affects one's daily life, however, greatly depends on tradition and location. For example, in predominantly Page 111  |  Top of ArticleTheravada countries, believers periodically spend weeks or months each year in a monastery. In Thailand, lay Buddhists recite prayers or meditate during the day and provide alms of food and clothing to monks on their pindapata (alms-rounds). Lay Buddhists await these monks on their alms-rounds, with rice, fruit, and even small packets of food wrapped in banana leaves. No verbal thanks are given by the monks, only a nod of the head. Buddhists believe that the act of giving is more perfect without thanks. After performing this act of dana, the lay Buddhists go to their jobs or homes, having started the day with a virtuous act.

Kuan Yin is the bodhisattva of compassion and mercy in Mahayana Buddhism, a branch of Buddhism popular in Nepal, Vietnam, Korea, China, Japan, Tibet, and Mongolia. Kuan Yin is the bodhisattva of compassion and mercy in Mahayana Buddhism, a branch of Buddhism popular in Nepal, Vietnam, Korea, China, Japan, Tibet, and Mongolia. © Dean Conger/Corbis.

In the United States and other non-Asian countries, some Buddhists choose to live together in a sangha and build their daily lives around Buddhist principles. Others go about their daily activities and meet with their sangha weekly or monthly. Some choose to dress in robes, although there is no official dress code for the Buddhist laity.

The Buddha did not organize his teachings into a formal structure. It was more important to him that believers follow the dharma to reach enlightenment. Buddhists are not required to attend temple or worship in a particular way. Certain practices, however, have developed to allow people to worship together and share a common experience. If not regularly attending a temple or observing at a shrine, Buddhists can still honor the Buddha's teachings in their daily lives by following the Eightfold Path. Daily meditation is also a usual practice for devout Buddhists.

Rites at birth

Buddhism is closely connected to the rites of passage of birth, marriage, and death. In some countries, including Malaysia, there are certain rites that can be performed when a woman is about to give birth. Usually the husband will recite certain sutras and prayers, including the Angulimala Paritta, named after the Buddhist saint, Angulimala, who took special care of women in childbirth. This prayer states, "Sister, since I was born, I (intuitively) know that I have not intentionally deprived any Page 112  |  Top of Articleliving being of life. By this truth may there be well-being for you, well-being for the unborn child!"

After the birth of a child in Theravada countries, the parents take the child to the local temple to be given a name. Then the baby is blessed by monks and sprinkled with water. This is followed by a final ceremony with a candle. The lit candle is tilted so that drops of wax fall into a bowl of water and become solid again. This symbolizes the blending of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water.

Rites at marriage

Marriage is considered a secular, or nonreligious, contract for Buddhists. But in addition to a civil ceremony, a Buddhist wedding ceremony can be held, with a monk presiding. In Theravada countries a wedding ceremony will include the symbolic joining of the entire community by wrapping a long piece of string or thread around a picture of the Buddha and then around all those present. The monk cuts two pieces from the string and wraps one around the wrist of the groom. The groom then wraps the second piece of string or thread around his bride's wrist, symbolizing their unity. In Sri Lanka the wedding ceremony is called Poruwa Siritha, or Poruwa Ceremony. The Poruwa is a beautifully decorated wooden platform on which the traditional Buddhist marriage ceremony takes place. The bride and groom enter the Poruwa leading with the right foot. They greet each other with palms held together in the traditional manner of the anjali mudra. Instead of a ring, the groom places a gold chain around the bride's neck and presents her with a white cloth, which she gives to her mother. This symbolizes the groom's thanks to the bride's mother for bringing up her daughter correctly.

In other countries the ceremony is simpler, with the bride and groom and family and friends gathered at a shrine of the Buddha. The couple makes offerings of food, flowers, and incense to the Buddha and lights candles. Then the groom and bride recite from the Sigilovdda Sutra. The groom first says to the bride, "Towards my wife I undertake to love and respect her, be kind and considerate, be faithful, delegate domestic management, provide gifts to please her." Then the bride says, "Towards my husband I undertake to perform my household duties efficiently, be hospitable to my in-laws and friends of my husband, be faithful, protect and invest our earnings, discharge my responsibilities lovingly and conscientiously."

Following this, the guests and parents recite various sutras and chants as a blessing. The Mangala Sutra is a typical text for this occasion. Page 113  |  Top of ArticleIt states, in part, "Not to associate with fools, to associate with the wise, and pay honor to those who are worthy of honor, that is the highest blessing." The Vandana is another Pali chant used in some ceremonies: "Homage to the triple gems, homage to him, the blessed one, the exalted one, the fully enlightened one." A wedding feast follows the ceremony.

Rites at death

There are a number of Buddhist ceremonies connected with death and funerals. Even at the time of dying, Buddhists believe there is possibility for enlightenment. Some Buddhists wish to go to a monastery to die, while others bring monks and nuns to the home or hospital to pray and chant. In Tibetan Buddhism especially, the moment of death is a time for transformation or changing of a person's consciousness. Tibetan Buddhists have a ceremony called phowa to aid in the liberation of the consciousness, or enlightenment, at the time of death. The phowa prayer is recited: "Through your blessing, grace, and guidance, through the power of the light that streams from you: May all my negative karma, destructive emotions, obscurations [withholdings], and blockages be purified and removed, May I know myself forgiven for all the harm I may have thought and done, May I accomplish this profound practice of phowa and die a good and peaceful death, And through the triumph of my death, may I be able to benefit all other beings, living or dead."

Upon the death of a Buddhist, a monk is called in to say something about the person. The monk also recites the Five Precepts, a reminder of the changing nature of all living things. Then the monk or a relative pours water into an empty bowl until it overflows into a dish below. This signifies the merit gained by those attending the death. Then the following words are often recited: "Let the pure thoughts of goodwill be shared by my relative and may he/she be happy. As water runs from the rivers to fill the ocean, may well-being and merit within us pour forth and reach our beloved departed one." The body is then cleaned and put into clothing for burial. As the dead person is already assumed to have been reborn, no jewels or possessions are put into the coffin for the deceased to take along into death.

In many Buddhist countries bodies are cremated after death. Friends of the family gather at this ceremony and offer what is called "incense money," to purchase incense for the cremation. Feasts are generally served following a cremation and prayers said for the dead. In Tibet it is believed that forty-nine days must pass after the death prayers are Page 114  |  Top of Articlesaid before the deceased can enter a new existence. This period between death and rebirth is called bardo. A photograph or image of the deceased is burned at that time, to wish the person goodwill in his or her new life. Chinese Buddhists also believe in the seven-week period between death and rebirth. They offer prayers for the dead every seven days for forty-nine days and also at the hundredth day after death.

Buddhism's influences

With more than four million followers worldwide, Buddhism is considered to be one of the major world religions. In addition to its religious influence Buddhism has also played an important part in the development of many forms of art and architecture, and has even influenced Western psychology (the science of the mind and its behavior).

Buddhism impacts the arts

Buddhist art has had a major impact on the arts of Asia. For example, the image of the Buddha has played as significant a role in Asian art as the image of Christianity's founder, Jesus Christ (c. 6 BCE–c. 30 CE) has in Western art. In early Indian versions, the Buddha is generally portrayed smiling, which is meant to show his experience of enlightenment and inner peace. The eyes are often closed, and he is often portrayed seated on a lotus throne with his hands shaped into mudras. This Indian style of representing the Buddha spread with the religion across Asia. In China the Buddha was often portrayed in golden robes with heavy folds. Over time, his eyes and face took on a Chinese appearance. Depictions of the Buddha often were made far larger than life size. In South Korea, at Sokkuram Grotto on Mt. Toham, the Buddha image was carved out of the face of a mountain. Another giant Buddha was carved out of a cliff in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Called the Buddha Vairocana, it guarded the road to Central Asia for centuries until it was destroyed by the Taliban government in 2001.

A different Buddha Vairocana was created in Japan in the eighth century CE. It stood more than 50 feet high, weighed more than 200 tons, and was decorated with 500 pounds of gold. Sri Lanka also has a monumental Buddha sculpture, the Reclining Buddha. About fifty feet long, it is carved out of granite at the Gal Vihara Temple in Polonnaruwa. Thus, the image of the Buddha provided inspiration for the creation of great art works throughout Asia, most of them created by monks who wished to show their devotion and love for the Buddha.

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Buddhism also influenced art in Asia beyond religious works. In Japan, for example, Zen Buddhism had a strong influence on many art forms. Simplicity and purity are traditionally part of Zen teachings, as is the calmness that comes with meditation. Zen painters were free to focus on subjects other than the bodhisattvas that dominated Mahayana art. The Zen art of portraiture was one of the earliest to depict humans in a realistic manner. The Zen Doctrine of Emptiness or the Void influenced nonreligious Japanese painters to leave parts of the canvas or paper empty. The viewer mentally fills in what the artist leaves out. In addition, Zen art influenced the painting style of sumi-e. In this simple style, black ink and a brush are used to produce many shades of gray. Such pictures may be only a swirl of lines to suggest a scene from nature. This depiction of nature by Japanese artists was influenced by the Zen saying, "The trees show the bodily form of the wind."

Allied to the visual arts is Buddhist influence on the manuscript arts, including calligraphy (fine handwriting), block printing, and illumination, or book illustration. In China and Japan calligraphy became a true art form. In China such writing skill was a blend of dharma philosophy with the older Chinese tradition of landscape painting. Buddhist monasteries became safe libraries for beautifully illustrated Buddhist texts, just as Christian monasteries preserved illuminated holy works.

Buddhist architecture also influenced sacred building styles across Asia. Buddhist architecture began with the simple stupa, a mound originally covering the ashes of the Buddha. These became increasingly ornate (decorated) over the years. Once the stupa was exported to China it developed into a building called a pagoda. These tall, multistoried towers have upward-curving tiled roofs and were initially used just as the stupa, to enclose a Buddhist relic. Soon this building style spread with Buddhism to Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. The pagoda also changed function. No longer was it just a closed tower for a relic, but a building for worship, a Buddhist temple. The pagoda has become a characteristic Chinese and Japanese building style in religious architecture.

Buddhist influences on science

Nonreligious Buddhist influence has also been felt in the West. Psychotherapy, or treatment of mental and emotional disorders using psychological methods, has also long recognized the benefits of using some Buddhist principles. There are similarities between the two systems. Buddhism, like psychotherapy, attempts to help people discover why they are suffering so that they can then help to Page 116  |  Top of Articleheal themselves. Some also see a similarity in the idea of "taking refuge" in both systems. In Buddhism, the participant stays in a monastery to focus on personal growth. Similarly, in psychotherapy, the patient seeks refuge in the doctor's office to try to work through his or her personal problems. Self-awareness is a Buddhist goal, and Buddhist practices from meditation to self-observation techniques are employed by Western psychologists and psychotherapists to help their patients. In particular, psychologists see the similarity between the Buddhist goal of enlightenment and the psychotherapist's goal of freeing the unconscious mind.

Buddhism has influenced the world both religiously and in secular, or nonreligious, ways since its introduction 2,500 years ago. The scientist Albert Einstein (1879–1955) conceded the influence and importance of Buddhism when he wrote in The Merging of Spirit and Science, "The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual and a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description…. If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism."

For More Information


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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3448400014