FOUNDED: Fifth century BCE
RELIGION AS A PERCENTAGE OF WORLD POPULATION: 7 percent
Buddhism ranks among the world's oldest and most influential world religions. It was founded some 2,500 years ago by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, in northeast India. Today Buddhism has spread to nearly every region of the world. The doctrine of the Buddha centers on the Four Noble Truths, the Law of Dependent Origination, a reinterpretation of the Hindu concept of karma, and the rejection of the existence of a permanent, unchanging, and stable self. Much of the practice of Buddhist monks focuses on meditation, scriptural learning, and ritual performances; the practice of Buddhist laymen finds expression in the observation of moral precepts, veneration of the Buddha, and provision of offerings to the monks.
The single most significant unifying factor for the world's diverse Buddhist populations is the figure of the Buddha himself, Siddhartha Gautama. The Buddha lived in northeast India from about 480 to 400 BCE. He was the son of a local ruler but abandoned a life of riches in order to understand the factors that produced so much suffering in the world and to find a method to overcome the suffering, once and for all. He achieved this during a now-legendary session of meditation at the Bodhi tree and became enlightened. Soon followers began to gather around him, eager to share in his insight.
The Buddha's early community evolved within a larger movement of truth seekers or wanderers who were reacting against an increasingly oppressive Hindu religious tradition that had dominated northern India since the middle of the second millennium BCE. The adherents of this movement rejected the authority of traditional Hinduism and sought to find their own, alternative ways toward liberation, often based on meditation, yoga, and asceticism (renunciation of worldly pleasures). They lived in the forest, without fixed abodes, organized in small groups, and held shared visions of spiritual realization. Following the Buddha's death, the community that he left behind grew rapidly, first in the northeast and then over many other parts of India. Eventually, sometime during the second century BCE, the community began to reside in monasteries, producing highly organized, stable, and often wealthy religious institutions with significant economic influence. Monasteries soon came to form the backbone of Buddhist practice and doctrinal development, organizing and regulating all aspects of the Buddhist faith.
Over time, there emerged different interpretations of the nature and the qualities of the Buddha; still, all Buddhists, without exception, recognize, respect, and revere him. What makes the Buddha so significant in Buddhism is not simply that he is the founder of the religion, but also that he provides an ideal aspiration, however distant, for every Buddhist. It does not suffice to receive and understand the Buddha's teachings or to worship him; rather, one should seek to become like the Buddha—to replicate his spiritual experience.
There are now more approximately 500 million Buddhists in the world, most of whom belong to one
of the three major schools: Theravada (Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka), Dharmaguptaka (China, Korea, and Japan), and Mulasarvastivada (Tibet, Mongolia, and northern India). The followers of these schools embrace either the doctrines of the historical Buddha, as transmitted in the canonical collections of the nikayas (in the Pali language) or agamas (in Sanskrit), or those of the later Mahayana tradition (in Sanskrit). About 98 percent of the world's Buddhists live in Asia, but there are also significant Buddhist communities throughout Europe, North America, and Australia.
As it has spread from the third century BCE onward, almost by necessity, Buddhism changed. It adjusted to the different cultural norms, linguistic conventions, and religious beliefs of the countries it entered, incorporating local beliefs and practices in order find rapid acceptance. The Buddhist tradition thus displays an immense variety of beliefs and practices, well beyond the early teachings of its founder. There is no central Buddhist organization, single authoritative text, or simple set of defining practices. Buddhism is, to its core, a pluralistic religion.
Despite its remarkable diversity, though, there are elements that cut across the many contexts in which Buddhism and Buddhists flourish. These elements include beliefs and traditions that, although setting-specific and hence perhaps different in nuance, are recognized and practiced by all Buddhists. One such example is the formula of refuge, recited by all Buddhists as they enter into the new faith, and then routinely repeated in worship: “I go for refuge to the Buddha, I go for refuge to the dharma, I go for refuge to the sangha.” Other common philosophical tenets and beliefs include the truth of the law of dependent origination, the efficacy of the Noble Eightfold Path, the importance of meditation as well as the pan-Indian concepts of karma, samsara, liberation, rebirth, and pilgrimage.
Today, Buddhism is a potent religious and political force in many Asian countries. It holds immense influence in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. Even China, which turned its back on religion for much of the 20th century, is now rehabilitating Buddhist institutions. In the West, Buddhism has become a small but vocal force in modern ethical and environmental debate. Buddhist views are articulated through a new generation of Buddhist masters that found residence in the Buddhist centers of Europe and the United States and contribute to contemporary political discourse with growing confidence and stature.
The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, who would later be known simply as the Buddha, was by birth what one would now call a Hindu. Although Buddhism breaks with the Hindu tradition in significant ways, it was at the start very much a reform movement from within Hinduism. It is thus essential to understand something of the religious worldview of India in the sixth century BCE in order to understand the Buddha's own religious worldview and why Buddhism took the particular shape that it did.
The Buddha was born into a world in flux, of shifting religious ideals and changing social structures. The dominant religion in northern India up until this point was Brahmanism, based on a body of texts called the Vedas, which had developed orally beginning about 1500 BCE. This religious system was also beginning to be challenged from a number of fronts.
The Vedic religious world was one of numerous deities, or devas, many of whom were personified forces of nature. Humans could interact with and influence these devas via sacrifice; offerings such as grain, milk, and animals were placed in a sacrificial fire by a priest, or Brahman, and “consumed” by the gods. In return, according to the Vedas, humans would receive boons from the gods: abundant crops, healthy sons, protection, and so on.
This was, furthermore, a hierarchical religious world, formally defined by the division of society into four classes, or varnas, membership in which was determined solely by birth. At the top were the sacrificial
priests, the Brahmans. It was their role and duty to perform the religious rituals and to preserve and recite the Vedas—to memorize the thousands of verses, to chant them at the sacrificial rituals, and to orally pass these texts on to successive generations of Brahmans. In so doing, the Brahmans maintained the order, or dharma, of the world, ensuring that the gods would be appeased.
Directly below the Brahmans in the hierarchy were the Kshatriyas, the warriors and sociopolitical rulers. Just as it was the duty of the Brahmans to maintain the order of the divine world, so was it the dharma of the Kshatriyas to rule in the human realm. Below the Kshatriyas were the Vaishyas, the cultivators and keepers of domestic animals. It was their dharma, accordingly, to provide food and material goods. Below them were the Shudras, the laborers and servants, whose dharma it was to ensure the cleanliness of the other three classes of humans. Outside this system was a group called untouchables, or outcastes, who had no defined role in the social system and whose character and nature was considered to be adharma (disruptive to the cosmic order).
This was a system of mutual dependence but also of restriction. There was no upward mobility in this system. One Vedic text (the “Purusha Shukta” of the Rig Veda) that describes the creation of the universe envisions this social system as a human being who is sacrificed to create the world: the Brahmans are the mouth of the human (because of their oral preservation and performance of the sacred verses of the Veda); the Kshatriyas are the arms (because they are the “strong arms” of the social world); the Vaishyas are the thighs (the support of the body); and, significantly, the Shudras are the feet (the lowest but in many ways the most fundamental). Thus, social and cosmic order (dharma) can be maintained only if each part of the body is present and “healthy.” Certainly the feet are lower than the head, but without the feet the body cannot stand.
A new genre of religious discourse, a body of texts known as the Upanishads, began to emerge out of the Vedic ritual religious world sometime between the seventh and the fifth centuries BCE. Although they would eventually become part of Hinduism, these texts—orally transmitted, like the Vedas—began to question the efficacy of the formal sacrifice and introduced essential new religious ideas that would be adopted, in part, by the Buddha: the idea of rebirth (samsara), the law of cause and effect (karma), the concept of liberation (moksha) from samsara, and the practice of asceticism and meditation (yoga).
As the ideas of the Upanishads began to circulate, some individuals took them to heart and set out to experience the liberation they described. These individuals renounced their ties to the material world and became wanderers, spreading these new ideas still farther and
debating philosophical and meditational points. These wanderers were called shramanas, and the Buddhists were no doubt a subset of this group of itinerant religious seekers. Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, also belonged to the shramana tradition.
At about the same time, important social changes were in process along the Gangetic Plain in northern India. Kingdoms began to emerge out of the smaller kinship structures, and with these kingdoms evolved cities and new structures of government. Furthermore, trade routes began to develop between these cities, and with trade came both economic growth and the emergence of a wealthy mercantile class. This latter group is particularly important in the emergence of Buddhism, for although they had economic clout, they, as members of the Vaishya caste, did not have religious status; the Buddha would offer a new religious path that allowed them to develop that status.
It is now generally accepted that the man who would become the Buddha was born in Lumbini, a small village near what is now the border between Nepal and India, in the first quarter of the fifth century BCE. He was born into a Kshatriya family that was part of the Shakya clan, and was he given the name Siddhartha (he whose goal will be accomplished). His father was the elected leader, or king, of the Shakyas.
According to legend, his birth was asexual. In a dream that his mother had, the fetus was implanted in her womb by a white elephant. His father, upon learning of his wife's unusual impregnation, had the dream interpreted by a group of Brahman priests, who stated that the boy was
destined to greatness, either as a great king (cakravartin) or a religious leader. From the start it was clear that he would be an extraordinary human being. Siddhartha emerged from the womb—some versions have him diving out of his mother's side—and immediately took seven steps in each of the four directions, proclaiming that he was the foremost creature in each of them.
A priest had prophesied that the young prince would turn to a life of religion and abandon family and throne. To shield his son from the suffering of the world, Siddhartha's father kept him confined to the palace grounds, making sure that the young boy could see and experience only sweetness and light. In an early sermon, as recorded in the Anguttara Nikaya (a collection of the Buddha's sayings), the Buddha describes his childhood this way: “Bhikkhus [monks], I was delicately nurtured, exceedingly delicately nurtured, delicately nurtured beyond measure. In my father's residence lotus-ponds were made: one of blue lotuses, one of red and another of white lotuses, just for my sake…. My turban was made of Kashi cloth [silk from what is now Varanasi], as was my jacket, my tunic, and my cloak…. I had three palaces: one for winter, one for summer and one for the rainy season…. In the rainy season palace, during the four months of the rains, I was entertained only by female musicians, and I did not come down from the palace.” Initially, while living within the confines of the palace, Siddhartha followed in the footsteps of his father: he obtained a fine education and was groomed for kingship. Eventually he married and had a child, a son named Rahula.
One day Siddhartha persuaded his chariot driver to take him outside the gates of the palace, and there he saw the first of four things that would transform his life. Upon seeing an old man, Siddhartha asked his driver, “Good charioteer, who is this man with white hair, supporting himself on the staff in his hand, with his eyes veiled by the brows, and limbs relaxed and bent? Is this some transformation in him, or his original state, or mere chance?” The driver answered that it was old age, and the prince asked, “Will this evil come upon me also?” The answer was, of course, “Yes.”
On two subsequent trips outside the palace grounds, Siddhartha saw a diseased man and then a dead man, and on each occasion he had much the same discussion with the driver. These first encounters with suffering (Sanskrit, duhkha; Pali, dukkha) transformed the happy prince into a brooding young man. As Buddhacarita (a second-century biography of the Buddha) puts it, “He was perturbed in his lofty soul at hearing of old age, like a bull on hearing the crash of a thunderbolt nearby.” Siddhartha wondered if perhaps this luxurious palace life was not reality but instead was an illusion of some sort, and he thenceforth wandered around in a profound existential crisis.
The fourth thing he saw was a wandering ascetic (a person who has renounced all possessions and other worldly pleasures for spiritual reasons). Having encountered not only the suffering that characterizes the world but also, in the ascetic, a potential way out of this realm of suffering, Siddhartha resolved to leave the palace and go out into the world and wander in search of the truth. He sneaked out in the middle of the night after first going to his sleeping father to explain that he was not leaving out of lack of respect nor out of selfishness but because he had a profound desire to liberate the world from old age and death, from the fear of suffering that comes with old age and death. In short, Siddhartha wanted to rid the world of suffering.
He went off and quickly mastered meditation with the help of two renowned teachers, but he was frustrated and thought that there must be something more than what he experienced as only temporary meditational trances. He thus set out on his own and was soon joined by five other ascetics who were part of the shramana tradition. Together they began a course of rigorous asceticism. Siddhartha applied himself with great rigor to this radical lifestyle for several years, getting to the point that he could sit in meditation for days, barely eating. The narratives of his life story say that at this point he could exist on a daily diet consisting of one sesame seed, one grain of rice, or one jujube. Eventually he reached a state in which he was emaciated and barely breathing.
While meditating one day Siddhartha remembered a passing moment in his childhood when he had slipped into a state of utter calm and equilibrium as he watched a plow turn the earth. He realized with this simple vision that he must somehow return to that humble moment and forge a middle path between the extreme asceticism he had been practicing (and that only leads to more suffering) and the sensual indulgence of his former life in the palace. His fellow shramanas abandoned him, cursing and denouncing him as weak willed. At this point a passing woman named Sujata saw the emaciated renouncer that he had become and offered him a simple gift, a bowl of rice gruel. With this modest nourishment Siddhartha sat down beneath a ficus tree near the town of
Gaya (known as Bodh Gaya after the Buddha attained enlightenment here) and made rapid progress. In the middle of his meditations he was challenged by an evil superhuman being named Mara, the embodiment of temptations of all kinds, as well as of fear, delusion, and death. In defeating Mara, Siddhartha metaphorically overcame all such hindrances and quickly attained enlightenment, or bodhi (awakening).
After his awakening, at the age of 35, the Buddha spent several weeks meditating on the various aspects of the truth, which he called dharma, that he had realized. He was initially hesitant to share his teachings, however, for he felt that the complexity of his meditational vision would be too difficult for people to grasp and would lead to further confusion and suffering. At this point, according to the tradition, the gods went to the Buddha to persuade him to accept his vocation of teacher, appealing to his compassion and assuring him that in fact there were people capable of understanding the dharma. One god used the image of a lotus pond: In a lotus pond there are some lotuses still under water or even under the mud; there are others that have risen only up to the water level; and there are still others that stand above water and are untouched by it. In a similar way, in this world there are people of different levels of development. Thus challenged, the Buddha determined to proclaim the insight he had gained and set out for nearby Sarnath, where he would offer his first discourse on the dharma.
The Buddha gave his first teaching to the very five ascetics who had joined him earlier but who had eventually abandoned him. They gathered around him as he spoke of what is known as the first turning of the Wheel of the Dharma. He laid out the basic outline of his knowledge and experience of enlightenment to these five shramanas. This first discourse represents, in many ways, the beginning of Buddhism, since it is with the sharing of his personal religious experience that the Buddha created the organized religion that is Buddhism.
That first sermon was so persuasive that the Buddha's ascetic friends quickly—after one week—attained enlightenment and so became the first arhats (worthy ones). The five, in turn, went forth and began to teach others the dharma that the Buddha had shared with them; this was the beginning of the Buddhist sangha, the community and institution of monks and nuns, that has always stood at the heart of Buddhism. For the next 40 years the Buddha traveled untiringly throughout India, sharing the dharma and gathering followers. He rested only in the summer for three months each year during the monsoon season. This period, known later as the rain season retreat, became an essential element in the formation not only of Buddhist monasticism but also of a Buddhist lay community. Monks settled in small communities throughout India, debating among themselves, establishing a formal religious canon and an accepted body of religious practices, and sharing the Buddha's teachings with the lay practitioners. The laity, in turn, supported the monks materially by providing them with shelter, food, robes, and alms bowls.
Toward the end of his life, the Buddha instructed his followers that no single person or group of people could hold authority over the community of monks and lay practitioners. Rather, the authority was to be shared by all. As much as this created an egalitarian religious community, it also, after the Buddha's death, opened the way both for productive debate about the meaning and significance of the teachings that the Buddha had left behind and for disagreement and schism. Initially, perhaps for as long as 300 years, the Buddha's teachings were preserved orally. These teachings were gathered in three collections, or “baskets.” These three sets of what the tradition regards as the Buddha's actual words are known as the Tripitaka (Pali, Tipitaka): the Vinaya (Discipline), the Dharma (Doctrine), and the Abhidharma (Advanced Doctrine). As these collections were formed, debates arose among the groups of monks about the content of these discourses and their significance.
These debates led to schisms within the Buddhist community. Tradition claims that shortly after the Buddha's demise, a group of prominent disciples convened a council in the town of Rajagriha (present-day Rajgir, in Bihar) to discuss issues of doctrine and practice; another council was held about a century later. As a result of the disagreements—over proper practice and doctrine—voiced at these councils, the sangha eventually divided into two different lines of monastic ordination, the Sthavira (Elders) and the Mahasanghika (Great Assembly), whose differences initially mostly revolved around issues of monastic discipline, or Vinaya. The Mahasanghika school was particularly prominent in northeast and central India; the Sthaviravada/Theravada community flourished in southern India, in Sri Lanka, and, in later centuries, in Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand. Some scholars today believe that these two groups evolved, over time, into the Mahayana and Theravada, respectively. The link between the Mahasanghika school and the much later Mahayana tradition appears to be rather tenuous, however.
One of the most important figures in the history of Buddhism was King Ashoka (304–232 BCE), who, for almost 40 years (269–232 BCE), ruled the Mauryan empire that dominated large parts of northern and central India. Some sources suggest that he himself converted to Buddhism, but more importantly, he came to be viewed as a model of dharmic kinship that, according to Buddhist sources, all subsequent righteous rulers sought to emulate. Ashoka erected numerous large stone pillars throughout India with edicts inscribed on them. These edicts laid out many of the basic aspects of the Buddha's teachings as well as guidelines for how to live a good Buddhist life. Ashoka also built monastic shelters, planted shade trees along the royal highways, and had wells dug to assist travelers on their often long and tiresome journeys.
Most importantly, he is said to have played a role in the distribution of the physical remains of the Buddha throughout India. These remains came to play a seminal role in the spread and growth of Buddhism. Enshrined in chaityas and stupas—burial mounds of varying size—they became objects of devotion and important gathering places, often associated with significant events in the Buddha's life. They thus allowed the monks to circulate the dharma among ever larger and larger groups. Tradition holds that Ashoka sent out a number of Buddhist missions to the regions adjacent to his own kingdom. Most famously, it is said that he dispatched his own son, Mahinda, to Sri Lanka in order to introduce Buddhism on the island. However, the account, as preserved, is largely fictitious and probably contains little historical truth.
It is clear, however, that, in the minds of later Buddhists, Ashoka set an important precedent through his support for the sangha; many came to consider the support of rulers an essential element in the expansion and vitality of the religion. It is not known why the kings were attracted to Buddhism; some perhaps valued its emphasis on morality, while others might have sought links with the sangha because of its ever-increasing wealth. The monks no doubt benefited from royal patronage through the provision of land, food, and protection; the king in turn drew on the aura and spiritual authority of monks in order to achieve political legitimization. For the Buddhists, the ideal of kingship embraced the attributes brought together in the dharmaraja (king of dharma): just, generous, and moral, upholding and promoting the teachings of the Buddha. This basic model is still maintained in Buddhist countries today.
As Buddhism spread, the Theravada school (sometimes called Southern Buddhism) came to be particularly well established in South Asia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, and Cambodia. Of the other 17 schools, only two have survived to the present day outside India: the Dharmaguptaka and Mulasarvastivada schools (sometimes called Northern Buddhism). The Dharmaguptaka spread north, first to Gandhara and Central Asia, then to China, Korea, and Japan. Mulasarvastivada communities continue to exist in Tibet and Mongolia, embracing Mahayana practices and beliefs that first had emerged in India sometime around the beginning of the Common Era. In northern India and Tibet, the Mahayana tradition gave rise to what is often called Tantric Buddhism (or Vajrayana), an extrapolation from the core Mahayana beliefs that puts particular emphasis on the transformative effects of ritual. In China and then later in Japan, Mahayana thought gave rise to Ch'an (Zen in Japan), which places particular emphasis on meditation. Thus, even though Buddhism had disappeared in India by the 13th century, it was able to flourish in other parts of Asia, where it continues to constitute a major religious tradition in the 21st century.
Buddhism made contact with the West during the age of colonialism. From the 18th century onward, largely through the agency of British civil servants, reports of its art, religious practices, and beliefs reached Europe. In the 19th century interest in Buddhism sufficiently matured in Europe and North America to evolve into a discrete scholarly field preoccupied with the translation of Buddhist scriptures (which were mainly preserved in Pali and Sanskrit) and the analysis of its philosophical tenets and doctrines. This interest led to an increasing number of publications on Buddhism, both within the scholarly realm and for the general public. Although Buddhism never managed to establish itself as a major religious community in the West—estimates vary, but probably no more than 1 percent of the world's 500 million Buddhists live in Europe and North America today—its members achieved a vocal presence. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Buddhist presence was enhanced through the influx of Asian immigrants, who brought with them key components of Buddhist culture, belief, and practices and soon began to establish religious communities, often organized around small temples, in many cities of the West.
As Buddhism gained followers and monks began to form distinct groups—initially united on the basis of matters of monastic discipline—new
schools began to emerge. Over time, the schools began to formulate doctrinal challenges. This led to the production of an exegetical literature in which their scholars expounded the new thinking. By the first century CE, many more texts had begun to appear: commentaries on the Buddha's sermons, monastic codes, and an entirely new genre of doctrinal discourse that tradition said was hidden by the Buddha. This immense literary profusion is perhaps one of the hallmarks of Buddhism. Still, there remained many foundational doctrines shared by all Buddhists.
Fundamental to much of Buddhist thinking is the concept of samsara, which Buddhism shares with Hinduism. Samsara constitutes an underlying worldview or ethos that postulates that all beings, including animals, are part of an endless (and beginningless) cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. Later Buddhist traditions extended this model to propose that the physical universe consists of an infinite number of world systems, spread out infinitely in space, that are impermanent and ever-changing, like all the beings that inhabit them. It was, in many ways, the realization of the horror of samsara that led to the Upanishads and the shramana movements. These movements attempted to devise a religious mode of action and thought that would provide a way out of this endless cycle of rebirth.
The Buddhist view of the cosmos is predicated on samsara and holds that there are both different world systems and different realms that are arranged in a tripartite structure: the “sense-desire” realm at the bottom, the “pure form” realm above that, and the “formless” realm at the top. Within these three divisions are further sub-realms into which a being can be reborn: the human realm, the animal realm, the hungry ghost (preta) realm, various hells, and, higher up, divine (deva) realms. Although it is not the highest realm, human existence is considered the most auspicious because it is the only one that offers the opportunity of liberation. It is only in a human life that beings have access to the teachings of the Buddha and the ability to act upon the desire to end suffering. It is important to note that Buddhism holds that even the divine beings, despite their power, are subject to the laws of samsara.
Karma (“act” or “deed”), another concept shared with Hinduism, plays an important role in Buddhist religious thought. Karma determines the quality of each rebirth and keeps the individual in the samsara. On its most basic level, karma is the natural law of cause and effect, inherent in the very structure of the world, a cumulative system in which good acts produce good results, bad acts bad results. Beings are then reborn in good or bad realms, depending on their cumulative karma in each birth. Karma is frequently described in Buddhist texts as a seed (phala) that will eventually grow fruit, which is, naturally, dependent on what sort of seed was sown.
The Buddhist understanding of karma further stipulates that it is not just the act that determines the karmic result but also the motivation behind the act. Thus, good acts done for the wrong reason can produce negative karmic results, and likewise bad acts that might have been done for good reasons (or accidentally) do not necessarily produce negative karmic results. Indeed, Buddhists believe that bad thoughts are every bit as detrimental as intentional bad actions.
Negative karma is most typically created through intentionally harming other beings and through greed. Positive karma is most easily created through compassionate acts and thoughts and through giving selflessly (which is, ultimately, motivated by compassion).
The doctrine of impermanence (anitya) is rooted in the four visions that prompted Siddhartha to abandon his life in the palace. What he realized, when he saw old age, disease, and death, was that all beings are in a fundamental state of flux and, ultimately, decay. This is, in an important sense, a fundamental corollary to the reality of samsara—the human being, just as the world, is constantly evolving, decaying, and reforming. Furthermore, it is the failure to recognize this flux that causes beings to suffer, since they grasp on to that which is impermanent—life, love, material objects, and so on—wishing it will last. The Buddha condensed this basic idea in a simple pronouncement: “whatever is impermanent is suffering” (yad aniccam tam dukkham). Since the whole of existence is impermanent, everything ultimately involves suffering. This he succinctly expressed in the phrase “everything is suffering” (sabbam dukkham).
The doctrine of no self (anatman; Pali, anatta) is frequently misunderstood in the West. The Buddha does not mean that human beings have no personality but, rather, that because everything in the world is impermanent, there can be no permanent self. In this way Buddhism significantly breaks from Hindu doctrine, which holds that there does exist a permanent, unchanging self that is reborn time and time again in samsara. But if there is no permanent self, what is it that is reborn? It is karmic residue alone. In his second sermon, the Buddha explains that what one thinks of as the self is only a collection of personality traits (skandha; Pali, khandha). They create the impression that there are both objects to be perceived and a person to perceive the objects, when in fact all of these objects are impermanent, constantly changing.
This Buddhist idea is explored resourcefully in a conversation between the monk Nagasena and King Milinda, contained in the Milindapanha. Nagasena uses the example of a chariot to illustrate no self, explaining to Milinda that although one can point to, ride, or see a chariot, it exists only insofar as it is a collection of parts—axles, wheels, reins, and so on—and that since no single part can be called the chariot, there is no essential, independent thing called a chariot, just as there is no essential, independent self.
The process of becoming is explained through the law of dependent origination (pratitya-samutpada; Pali, paticca-samuppada), which distinguishes 12 forces in the arising of existence. It is probably the single most important Buddhist doctrine. In the words of the Buddha, addressed to his most eminent disciple, Sariputta: “Whoever sees dependent origination sees the dharma. Whoever sees the dharma sees dependent origination.” This is a more elaborate understanding of karma and samsara, a vision of cause and effect in which everything in the world is dependent on some other thing for its existence, succinctly expressed in this simple formula, which occurs in any number of Pali texts: “When this is, that is / This arising, that arises / When this is not, that is not / This ceasing, that ceases.” In other words, one thing begets another. Birth begets life, which begets decay, which begets death, which begets birth, and around and around. To get out of the circle, one must break the chain somewhere, most efficiently at its weakest link, ignorance, which is done by applying oneself to mastering the dharma.
Connected to the law of dependent origination are the Four Noble Truths. In many ways, the Four Noble Truths constitute the doctrinal foundation of Buddhism; they provide a blueprint of the Buddha's teachings, delivered in his first sermon at Sarnath after he attained enlightenment.
The first Noble Truth, suffering (duhkha; Pali, dukkha), posits that suffering exists in the world. This is seen in the story of Siddhartha in the palace: The young prince is made aware that the world is not all wonderful, as it appears to be in the palace, but in fact that the rosy life was just an illusion. In the first sermon, the Buddha says that birth is duhkha, old age is duhkha, sickness is duhkha, death is duhkha—in fact, everything is duhkha, including things that seem to be pleasurable.
The first Noble Truth is intended not to engender a pessimistic worldview in Buddhists but, rather, to alert them to the reality of the world and to promote a clear, truthful view of that world. Furthermore, the response to the reality of suffering, as one sees clearly in the Buddha's
own desire to realize and share the dharma, is to show compassion (karuna) and kindness (maitri) to all living beings.
The second Noble Truth establishes the origin (samudaya) of suffering. Since suffering exists, the Buddha posits, it must have a cause, which is most simply expressed as thirst or desire (tanha). Thirst takes many forms: it is thirst for life, for things, for permanence. Although on its face this, too, may seem to engender a pessimistic worldview, in which the individual must stifle all sensual pleasure, it is important again to stress that the Buddha advocates a middle path between sensual indulgence and extreme asceticism. Pleasurable experiences should be experienced for what they are, without grasping. Indeed, the Buddha pronounces that it is precisely because humans mindlessly grasp things and experiences, always rushing to the next, that they fail to fully experience their lives, including that which is pleasurable. The point then is not to deny the sensual but to fully experience sensations and thoughts as they are happening.
The third Noble Truth is cessation (nirodha) of suffering. Just as the Buddha saw that if suffering exists it must logically have an origin, so, too, must it have an end. The end of duhkha is, logically, related to its source; nirodha comes as a result of ending craving, of stopping the grasping after things that are impermanent. When one stops grasping, one stops generating karma, and it is karma and karma alone that keeps beings trapped in samsara. The absolute elimination of karma is nirvana, eternal freedom from the bondage of samsara.
Of all Buddhist concepts, nirvana has perhaps been the most misunderstood. Although it is frequently equated with heaven or described as a state of bliss, nirvana is actually the absence of all states. The Sanskrit word literally means “to blow out, to extinguish,” as one would blow out a candle. Nirvana then refers to the absolute elimination of karma. Since karma is what keeps someone in samsara, which constitutes one's very being, the elimination of karma logically means an elimination of being. This is the end of duhkha, the end of the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth, beyond all states of existence.
Despite the fact that nirvana is the Buddhist understanding of ultimate salvation, the Buddha himself had little to say on the topic, often warning his followers of the dangers of grasping on to the end goal at the expense of living a focused, compassionate life. He describes it as the “extinction of desire, the extinction of illusion” and also as the “abandoning and destruction of desire and craving for these Five Aggregates of attachment; that is the cessation of duhkha.” When asked once if nirvana is a state of existence or not, however, the Buddha responded that this was an unanswerable question and left it at that. The point again is that the focus should be on mindful progression on the path, not on the destination. The person who spends too much time obsessively focusing on nirvana—or on any aspect of existence or doctrinal complexity—is, the Buddha said, like the man who, upon being shot by a poison arrow, asks who shot it, how did he aim, what sort of wood was used for the arrow, and so on. The point is that the man must first remove the arrow before the poison kills him.
That said, however, later Buddhist schools inevitably took up the question of nirvana, frequently engaging in long philosophical analysis of the possibility of describing it in positive terms. In some Mahayana schools nirvana is, in fact, often described as a kind of state of blissful calm.
The fourth Noble Truth consists of the Eightfold Path (marga; Pali, magga). It provides a description of the path that leads to nirvana. The Eightfold Path is often represented through the Wheel of the Dharma with eight spokes. In another sense, it marks the middle path between asceticism and hedonism, a systematic and practical way to realize the truth and eliminate suffering. The Eightfold Path is traditionally divided into three distinct phases that should, ideally, be progressively mastered.
The first phase consists of moral conduct (sila) and involves purifying one's outward behavior (and motivations for such behavior). The Buddha considers three distinct components of the Eightfold Path as belonging to moral conduct: right action, right speech, and right livelihood. Next comes meditation (samadhi), which is broken down, likewise, into three components: right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. The third phase consists of wisdom or understanding (prajna), which is found in two components: right understanding and right intentions. Prajna is not just knowledge or things one learns. Rather, it is a focused and analytic insight that allows the practitioner to penetrate the nature of existence in the world. In fact, it is often described as a sword that cuts through all illusion, a mental faculty that enables one to fully experience the world as it is without grasping. A later Mahayana school uses an image of geese reflected on a perfectly still pond to describe this state: The average person looks at the pond and, upon seeing the reflection of a flock of geese,
immediately looks up. But the person who has perfected prajna does not look up but, rather, fully experiences the thing that he or she is seeing in the moment, the reality of the reflection, without distractions. In a sense such a person does not think at all but only sees the world as it is—what the Buddha called yathabhutam (in a state of perpetual flux).
As Mahayana Buddhism emerged sometime during the first century CE, new and increasingly more complex doctrines developed, adding to the original teachings. For one, a new doctrine modified the position of the Buddha in the world, proposing that he continued to be available to devotees. The Buddha had not completely left the world when he died and attained nirvana but maintained an active presence in the world.
This became articulated in the doctrine of the three Buddha-bodies (trikaya). These bodies are not (all) physical bodies but represent the different ways in which the Buddha continues to be present in the world. The highest of the three is the “body of the teaching” (dharmakaya). This is the manifestation of the Buddha through the dharma. It characterizes the Buddha through his teachings, which contain the essence of the experience of enlightenment that defines the Buddha. Some consider the dharmakaya as the collection of good qualities that make up the Buddha. Then there is the “enjoyment body” (sambhogakaya), in which the Buddha operates in the various heavens among the gods. To humans, this body is visible only in states of deep meditation. Finally, the third body bears the title “manifestation body” (nirmanakaya) or “form body” (rupakaya). It is the earthly form, or manifestation, with which the Buddha appeared on Earth.
Related to this idea of the multiple bodies of the Buddha was the emergence of the concept of the bodhisattva (Pali, bodhisatta)—an enlightened being who works for the welfare of all those still caught in samsara—which came to be the hallmark of the Mahayana. The term bodhisattva had already appeared in the early Buddhist texts, but these stated that the Buddha attained enlightenment, taught the dharma, and upon his death entered nirvana to end his existence in samsara forever. The bodhisattva of the early texts refers to the Buddha's existences before he reached enlightenment on Earth. The Buddha's disciples, once they had attained enlightenment themselves, were known as arhats (worthy ones); they too entered nirvana at death. The Mahayana, however, is critical of this position, arguing that true practitioners should not seek their own salvation first and foremost but aim for the welfare of all. They believe that all those who have embarked on the Buddhist path should postpone their final nirvana out of their compassion for the sufferings of other beings; they should choose to remain in samsara in order to perfect their own Buddhahood and work for the benefit of all other beings, until each one attains enlightenment.
There are a number of important elements here. First, all beings were conceived as holding the innate potential to become a Buddha and to share in a kind of universal enlightenment. The path then was reconceived as being the path of the bodhisattva, a path that takes many lives but is intent on developing the thought of awakening (bodhicitta). This thought is raised at the outset of the bodhisattva path; once it is perfected, it shifts one's attention away from the self to a more altruistic engagement aimed at the well-being of others. Each bodhisattva takes a vow to help other beings and to continue to do so indefinitely, a vow that involves cultivating a set of six—later expanded to 10—perfections, or paramitas. The 10 perfections are (1) dana (generosity), (2) sila (morality), (3) ksanti (patience and forbearance), (4) virya (vigor, the endless and boundless energy that bodhisattvas employ when helping others), (5) dhyana (meditation), (6) prajna (wisdom), (7) upayakaushalya (skillful means), (8) pranidhana (resolution), (9) bala (power), and (10) jnana (knowledge). Once a bodhisattva has mastered these 10 perfections, then he or she is fully realized as a buddha.
With the rise of the ideal of the bodhisattva came also the development of a complex pantheon of enlightened beings. Three of the most popular and most important bodhisattvas are Maitreya, Avalokiteshvara, and Manjushri.
Eventually the Buddha's teachings will lose their potency as they too are impermanent and subject to decay. When things become unbearable in this world, sometime in the next aeon, Maitreya will be reborn as a Buddha and provide for the welfare of all beings through his own teachings (dharma). The signature quality of Maitreya is benevolence.
The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara is the quintessential Buddhist savior figure and the embodiment of compassion. He also ranks among the most popular of all bodhisattvas. His name is significant: Avalokiteshvara is the “lord who looks down (on the world).” He sees all suffering and responds immediately. He saves sentient beings from danger: fire, drowning in a river, being lost at sea, murder, demonic attack, fierce beasts and noxious snakes or insects, legal punishment, attack by bandits, falling from steep precipices, extremes of weather, internal civil or military unrest, and others.
Boasting sharp understanding, Manjushri is a key figure in numerous Mahayana scriptures. He soon became the focus of significant cultic activity in many Mahayana Buddhist countries. His name means “gentle glory,” although he also known by other names and epithets. Some refer to his mastery of speech (vagishvara) or to his disarming youth (kumarabhuta). Because he is destined to become a Buddha, Manjushri is also known as the “crown prince of the dharma.”
The concept of emptiness (shunyata) extends the Buddha's teachings about dependent origination to posit that all phenomena, not just the person, are dependent for their existence on some other thing or quality. It first appears in the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) texts. Nagarjuna (second century) propelled emptiness to the very center of Buddhist philosophical analysis. He argued that, just as the measurements “long” and “short” take on meaning only in relation to each other and are themselves devoid of independent quality (length or brevity), so too do all phenomena (dharma) lack their own being (svabhava). If a thing were to have an independent and unchanging own being, Nagarjuna reasons, then it would follow that it is neither produced nor existent, because origination and existence presuppose change and transience. Nagarjuna accepts, however, that elements have a conventional reality so that one can interact with them even if ultimately they are empty of existence. Related to this is the concept of skillful means (upayakaushalya). Skillful means refers to the bodhisattva's ability to employ whatever means he or she deems necessary to help beings toward enlightenment. Language, for instance, is itself empty, in that it depends on external references to make sense, but language is necessary to communicate and is therefore a skillful means through which to spread the dharma.
Moral Code of Conduct
The practice of ethics (sila), in the Buddhist context, is particularly interesting due to the tension that exists, right on the surface, between the individual's responsibility for his or her personal salvation—the Buddha himself admonished his followers to be their own island (atta dipa), dependent on no one but themselves for salvation—and his or her connection with society. This is illustrated in the Buddha's own biography. When Yashodhara—young Siddhartha's wife—hears that her husband has abandoned her, she falls upon the ground “like a Brahminy duck without its mate.” The Brahminy duck is a common symbol of lifelong marital partnership: the duck will die of remorse upon the death of its mate (Johnston, 1984). Likewise, his son is described as “poor Rahula,” who is fated “never to be dandled in his father's lap.”
A Buddhist practitioner must strike a balance between his or her concern for the suffering of others and his or her own progress on the path; too much concern for other people can be a hindrance, but not enough exerts a negative impact, too, because it stifles altruism. The cultivation of mindfulness (sati) is one of the instruments to achieve this balance. Mindfulness designates a mental attitude of complete and selfless awareness, a mental attitude that necessarily influences the manner in which one acts toward other living beings. If perfected, it informs one's every act and the intention behind the act.
For the monk the ethical system is extremely complex and extensive, contained primarily and explicitly in the Vinaya but secondarily and implicitly in every utterance of the Buddha. To be a monk is to be necessarily ethical and comply with a very detailed set of rules laid down in the monastic codes of the different Buddhist schools. The ethical guidelines are less specific for a layperson; he or she needs to “live a proper life.” This means that the layperson must be aware that all acts and all beings belong to samsara and are hence caught up in the forces that propel it through time. Whatever one does has effects, even though the effects are not always perceptible. This has far-reaching implications about the fabric of society and the practitioner's role in it. In the words of the Buddha: “O monks, it is not easy to find a being who has not formerly been your mother, or your father, your brother, your sister or your son or daughter” (from volume 2 of the Buddhist scripture Samyutta Nikaya). In other words, our acts hold the potential to reach beyond ourselves to all other beings: we are all connected through our actions.
It is important to bear in mind that Buddhism continued to operate within a Brahmanical milieu. Unlike Hinduism, however, in Buddhism there is an emphasis on the individual as he or she fits into society; it is not concerned with society or the institutions that govern conduct in society. Much of Hinduism focuses on order and duty, on making sure that everything and everyone stays in the proper place—hence, caste, life stages, and so on. This is not to say that this societal component is entirely absent in Buddhism; one of the motivations for the individual to act ethically is to make society work. Without social order things would fall utterly apart, as is perhaps best articulated in what is
sometimes called the Buddhist book of Genesis, the Agañña Sutta, which describes a social world in which chaos and decay emerge precisely because beings act greedily and selfishly. Proper, ethical action in Buddhism is not performed out of duty or some higher cosmic order, however; rather, one acts ethically out of one's own free will, because without such proper action, the individual can make no progress on the path.
The importance of generosity (dana) is central to Buddhist ethics and to the life of both layperson and monk; indeed, dana can be said to be the key to monk-lay relations. The first principle that must be noted here is that in Buddhism there is a marked ambiguity about material wealth. The concept of nonattachment, the absence of grasping, is of crucial importance; from the Buddhist perspective material goods are only important as a means of cultivating nonattachment. Again, its texts emphasize the middle way: Too many possessions can lead to attachment, just as too few can lead to craving. Material prosperity offers at once the opportunity for greater giving and the cultivation and expression of nonattachment, but such prosperity also offers a temptation toward the kind of anti-dharmic self-indulgence that leads to increased entrapment in the web of worldly existence.
The model donor in Buddhism is the laywoman Sujata, who gave Siddhartha the simple and selfless gift of rice gruel, which enabled him to gain the strength to make the final push to enlightenment. What makes this act of dana so important is that Sujata gave her gift modestly, with no self-interest, no expectation of gain or reward; she was responding with selfless compassion to Siddhartha's obvious need.
Another model donor is the king Vessantara. His story is told in a popular tale from the Jataka collection. He provides both a model of ethical giving and a cautionary tale about the consequences of excessive generosity. In this story Vessantara eventually gives away his kingdom and prosperity, his wife and children, everything, and the result is suffering for all until everything is restored and Vessantara realizes the need to give modestly.
Monks also engage in acts of generosity, although rather than giving material goods (for which they necessarily depend on the laity), they give the teachings of the Buddha. In the words of the Dhammapada, the dharma is the finest gift of all: “The gift of dharma excels all gifts.”
An important metaphor for proper ethical giving is bija, which means “seed” but is used to describe the seed of an act. This act is good, bad, or neutral. If it is done with the correct selfless motives, it bears a positive fruit (phala) and promotes spiritual growth. The Buddhist community (sangha) is the best field into which to plant a seed, and the best seed to plant is an act of giving. The sangha is thus viewed as the ideal, and most fertile, karmic field. This imagery is further developed in times marked by monastic corruption, when monks are sometimes described as a barren field in which no seed will bear fruit. This imagery is not limited to the monks and gifts to them but refers to any action.
Buddhist acts of charity, then, are fundamentally symbiotic in nature. The lay practitioners provide the monks with the material support that they need—shelter, robes, food, and so on—and in the process cultivate the crucial attitudes of nonattachment and compassion, a kind of domestic asceticism that is not disruptive to the social order. The monks, in turn, depend on the lay practitioners and return the material gifts with the gift of the Buddha's teachings. Furthermore, the ideology of dana is such that the lay practitioners' gifts will only bear “fruit” (that is, positive karma) if the monks are pure (in other words, a fertile field). If a particular monastery becomes corrupt, then the lay practitioners will give somewhere else, providing a kind of ethical imperative for monastic purity.
A crucial element in all of this is the concept of merit (punya). Merit, in this context, roughly corresponds to what today is somewhat loosely called “positive karma.” By giving selflessly, one “earns” merit and so accumulates positive karma, which determines the quality of one's next rebirth. If one is too attached to this merit, though—too focused on the end products and not the selfless and compassionate act of giving (and giving up)—then one in fact earns not positive karma but negative, which will hinder one's ultimate spiritual progress.
The pancha sila constitute a basic set of five ethical precepts for the lay practitioner, although not everyone observes the five rigidly. The first precept is to refrain from killing. The basic idea here is that every individual is connected with all other living beings. Moreover, killing is often a manifestation of anger, which is one of three evil emotions (along with desire and delusion) that perpetuate existence in samsara. Buddhists go to considerable lengths to qualify this precept, citing five requirements: (1) presence of a living being, (2) knowledge of its presence, (3) intention to kill, (4) act of killing, and (5) the death of a living being.
What is most important about this first precept is not its negative form—the injunction against killing—but its positive aspect: Buddhists refrain from killing not because it is prohibited or leads to rebirth in one of the inauspicious realms but because killing signals the absence of compassion and loving kindness. This positive aspect is one of the most common things upon which lay practitioners meditate, often with this verse from the Metta Sutta: “May all beings be happy and secure; May their hearts be wholesome. Whatever living beings there be—feeble or strong, tall, stout or medium, short, small or large, without exception, seen or unseen, those dwelling far or near, those who are born or who are to be born—may all beings be happy.”
The second precept prohibits theft or, more precisely, the taking of what has not been given. This is particularly important for the monks and is connected with the concept of generosity (dana). Because one of the chief ethical activities of the layperson is to give unselfishly to the sangha, this giving is contingent on the monks accepting, also unselfishly, whatever is given. The monks must not take anything that is not given to them.
The third precept spells out the prohibition of sexual misconduct. This prevents lust and envy, which are the most powerful forms of thirst (tanha).
The fourth precept is about lying. Falsehood creates deception and illusion and leads to grasping. Monks must also not articulate false doctrines.
The fifth precept bars lay practitioners from drinking liquor because it clouds the mind and prevents mindfulness (sati).
Apart from these five basic principles, all novices and some pious lay practitioners follow a small number of additional rules, sometimes three, sometimes five: These encourage the Buddha's followers not to consume meals at an untimely moment (the rule thereby promotes group sharing of food and hinders the desire to hoard); to abstain from dancing or playing music (thereby promoting a sober, nonfrivolous life); not to wear adornments or jewelry (which would be against the basic ascetic attitude of the monk); not to sit on high seats (an injunction intended to promote equality in the sangha); and not to handle money (thereby preventing greed and attachments).
The Buddha famously told his personal attendant and much-cherished disciple, Ananda, that after his death, the dharma alone would serve as the teacher of the monks and nuns—that it would be the “guiding light” for all future Buddhists. This remark establishes the central role of the sacred texts in Buddhism. Tradition holds that during the first rainy-season retreat after the Buddha's death, sometime around 400 BCE, his most accomplished disciples gathered at Rajagriha (present-day Rajgir, Bihar) and collected all of the Buddha's discourses into three sets, or “three baskets” (Tripitaka; Pali, Tipitaka). For more than 300 years these three collections were then transmitted orally within the sangha through a carefully managed process of memorization. By the end of the first century CE, many of these texts had been committed to writing. The oldest extant Buddhist manuscripts originated in Afghanistan (in the region previously known as Gandhara), where they had lain buried in sand for almost 2,000 years until they were discovered in 1996.
The first part of the Tipitaka consists of the Sutta Pitaka, some 30 volumes of the Buddha's discourses as well as various instructional and ritual texts. The second part is the Vinaya Pitaka, or collection of monastic rules; it includes a list of 227 rules for the monks (311 for nuns), called the Patimokkha, and detailed accounts as to how and why they were developed. The Vinaya also contains narratives of the Buddha's life, rules for rituals, ordination instructions, and an extensive index of topics covered. The third part of the Tipitaka is the Abhidhamma Pitaka, or collection of scholastic doctrines. These are highly abstract, philosophical texts dealing with all manner of issues, particularly the minutiae that make up human experience. The last of these texts, the Patthana Abhidhamma, stretches over some 6,000 pages.
Many of the more important scriptures are accompanied by extensive commentaries, and sometimes sub-commentaries. These clarify the grammatical and linguistic ambiguities of the text, extend the analysis, or serve as guides that explain the books' more difficult philosophical and ritual points.
With the rise of the Mahayana, sometime around the beginning of the Common Era, new books were added to this basic canonical core, most of them composed in Sanskrit. Tradition holds that these were not new texts in the modern sense of the term, but higher, more advanced, teachings that the Buddha had set aside for later generations of followers. It is now generally accepted that many of these early Mahayana sutras were composed by groups of renunciants living in remote forest locations distant from the main monastic centers
of the day. Over time, the communities gained in confidence and introduced their ideas and texts to the established Buddhist institutions. It took, however, several centuries, perhaps as late as the fifth century CE, before Mahayana thought entered the mainstream and achieved representation in the wider Buddhist society. Perhaps the best-known canonical Mahayana text is the Lotus Sutra, composed during the second/third century CE, and the Prajnaparamita sutras (Perfection of Wisdom). More texts were added as the Mahayana tradition evolved in India. When Buddhism spread across large areas of Asia, these texts, together with the earlier Tripitaka, were translated into Chinese and Tibetan. The translations themselves led to a further growth of the canon, particularly in Tibet, where the rise of the Vajrayana (Tantric) tradition produced still more scriptures.
Early Buddhism deployed a number of symbols to communicate different aspects of the Buddha's teachings: the Wheel of the Dharma, symbolic of his preaching (“turning”) his first sermon and also, with its eight spokes, of Buddhism's Eightfold Path; the Bodhi tree, which symbolizes not just the place of his enlightenment (under the tree) but the enlightenment experience itself; the throne, symbolizing his status as “ruler” of the religious realm and also, through its emptiness, his passage into final nirvana; the deer, symbolizing the place of his first sermon, the Deer Park at Sarnath, and also the protective qualities of the dharma; the footprint, symbolizing both his former physical presence on Earth and his temporal absence; and the lotus, symbolic of the individual's journey up through the “mud” of existence, to bloom, with the aid of the dharma, into pure enlightenment. Later Buddhism added countless more symbols. In the Mahayana, for instance, the sword becomes a common symbol of the incisive nature of the Buddha's teachings; in Tibet the vajra (diamond, thunderbolt) is a ubiquitous representation of the pure and unchanging nature of the dharma.
Early and Modern Leaders
The Buddha's immediate disciples came to form the first communities of monks and nuns; they also assumed responsibility for the preservation of his teachings. A key figure in this endeavor was Ananda, the Buddha's cousin, who accompanied the master for more than 20 years and features prominently in many early Buddhist texts. Sariputta, one of the first converts (along with Mahamogallana), was
the Buddha's most trusted disciple and was often depicted as the wisest. Sariputta also served as the teacher of the Buddha's son when he joined the sangha. Another important early figure is Mahakassapa, a Brahman who became a close disciple of the Buddha. Mahakassapa presided over the first Buddhist Council at Rajagriha (present-day Rajgir, in Bihar) and was later celebrated in Ch'an (Zen in Japan) as the first bearer of the Buddha's esoteric teachings. When the Buddha, in reply to a question about the dharma, held up a flower, Mahakassapa merely smiled, thus indicating that he had fully grasped this special teaching. The Buddha's aunt, Mahapajapati,
also figures prominently in several early texts. She raised young Siddhartha after his mother's death and became the first woman admitted into the order of nuns.
The Greco-Bactrian king Milinda, also called Menander or Menandros, reigned over Afghanistan and northern India in the latter half of the second century BCE. Tradition holds that Milinda was one of the most important early royal converts to Buddhism. He is said to have conducted a series of discussions with a Buddhist monk, Nagasena, which were later recorded in the famous Milindapanha. Perhaps the most famous of all historical figures in Indian Buddhism is Ashoka (304–232 BCE), the emperor of the Mauryan dynasty and the first king to rule over a united India. He became also one of Buddhism's most celebrated royal patrons. Ashoka abolished war in his empire, prohibited killing for food, built hospitals, erected many stupas (Buddhist burial mounds), and engraved a series of edicts on rocks and pillars throughout his empire that promoted the basic moral principles of Buddhism. Tradition claims that Ashoka was even instrumental in the spread of Buddhism outside of India, although there is little evidence for this. For example, a late Buddhist historical source portrays his son Mahinda (third century BCE) as the leader of a mission to Sri Lanka to introduce Buddhism there.
Another important early Buddhist king was Harshavardhana (606–647 CE). He ruled a large empire in northern India and became an important Buddhist convert. Like Ashoka, he is described in Buddhist texts as the ideal political ruler—benevolent, energetic, and just, active in the administration and prosperity of his empire—and is frequently invoked as a model for all righteous rulers.
There were many important historical Buddhist figures outside of India. One of these was the Chinese pilgrim Faxian (also Fa-hsien; fourth to fifth century) who composed an important record of the early Buddhist world in India. He traveled across India in search of key Buddhist Sanskrit texts that he translated upon his return to China in 414; the account of his travels remains one of the most insightful depictions of the Buddhist tradition in the middle of the first millennium. Faxian was followed by another Chinese pilgrim, Hsuan-tsang (602–664). He too was a Buddhist monk who traveled across Central Asia to reach India in order to acquire original scriptures, producing many translations and a detailed account of his journey. On his return to China, Hsuan-tsang became influential through his learned contributions to the doctrines of the Yogacara school.
The sixth-century South Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma became a central figure in Chinese and, later, Japanese Buddhism. He arrived at the Chinese court in 520 and is credited with founding the Ch'an (Zen) school of Buddhism. Other important East Asian historical figures are Honen (1133–1212), also called Genku, who in 1175 established the Jodo (Pure Land) school in Japan; Shinran (1173–1263), founder of the True Pure Land School of Japanese Buddhism, popularized congregational worship and introduced reforms such as salvation by faith alone, marriage of priests, and meat eating; finally, there is Nichiren (1222–1282), founder of the Nichiren sect in Japan.
In Tibet the yogi Padmasambhava (eighth century) is one of the best-known early Buddhist figures. He was a Tantric saint who helped to introduce Buddhism to Tibet; legend has it that he converted the local demons who opposed the newly arriving Buddhist faith and turned them into protectors of the religion. Atisha (982–1054) was an Indian monk-scholar from Nalanda, one of the most celebrated Buddhist universities of his time, who went to Tibet in 1038. He led the reform of Buddhism in Tibet by enacting measures to enforce celibacy and raise the level of moral conduct within the Tibetan sangha. His disciples founded the Kadampa school, which later became the Geluk-pa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Bu-ston (1008–1064), a Tibetan Buddhist monk, exerted tremendous influence on Buddhist literature of Tibet. Most notably, he redacted the Kanjur and Tanjur, the two basic Tibetan collections of Buddhist scriptures, into their current form. He also wrote an important history of Buddhism in Tibet that soon came to rank among the most important documents for Buddhism's early development in that region. Finally, there are two extremely important semi-historical figures, Marpa (1012–1096) and Milarepa (1040–1143). Marpa was a Tibetan lay practitioner thought to have imported songs and texts from Bengal to Tibet, but he is best known as the teacher of Milarepa. The latter was a saint and poet and commanded high esteem among Tibet's population for centuries. In his autobiography he recounts how in his youth he practiced black magic in order to take revenge on relatives who deprived his mother of the family inheritance and then later repented and sought Buddhist teaching.
The 14th Dalai Lama (1935– ) has been the spiritual and political leader of Tibetan Buddhists from the
mid-20th century up through the first decades of the 21st. He has lived in exile since 1959, when the Chinese invaded Tibet. The Dalai Lama has been instrumental not only in aiding the Tibetan people but also in spreading Buddhism to the West. In 1989 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933), a Sri Lankan Buddhist lay practitioner, is widely regarded as one of the most influential Buddhist propagandists of the modern era. Dharmapala led the restoration of the ancient site of Bodh Gaya in India, the birthplace of Buddhism, and contributed to the spread of Buddhism to the West. For much of his life he was closely associated with Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907), an American who, along with Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, founded the Theosophical Society. Olcott worked to establish a new lay Buddhism in Sri Lanka; in addition to founding schools and lay organizations, he wrote The Buddhist Catechism, a treatise that served as an important tool in establishing and consolidating the Buddhist faith among the lay population of Sri Lanka.
One of the most important early scholars of Buddhism was Thomas William Rhys Davids (1843–1922). Davids was professor of Pali at London University. Along with his wife, Caroline, he pioneered the translation, study, and transmission of Pali text in the West. Ananda Metteyya (Charles Henry Allan Bennett; 1872–1923) was another important Western Buddhist. The son of an electrical engineer, he was born in London and trained as an analytical chemist before becoming the first British bhikkhu (monk) and Buddhist missionary. Bhikkhu Ñanamoli (Osbert Moore; 1905–1960) was a pioneer British bhikkhu and Pali scholar who went to Sri Lanka and was ordained as a monk. He translated the fifth-century treatise the Visuddhimagga into English as The Path of Purification; he also translated the Buddhist scriptures the Nettippakarana (The Guide) and the Patisambhidamagga (Path of Discrimination), as well as most of the sections of the Majjhima Nikaya and several from the Samyutta Nikaya. Ayya Khema (Ilse Ledermann; 1923–1997) was born in Berlin to Jewish parents; in 1938 she escaped from Germany and began studying Buddhism. In 1978 she helped to establish Wat Buddha-Dhamma, a forest monastery near Sydney, Australia. She later set up the International Buddhist Women's Centre, a training facility for Sri Lankan nuns, and the Parappuduwa Nuns' Island at Dodanduwa, Sri Lanka.
Major Theologians and Authors
Asvaghosa, a Buddhist poet of the second century CE, wrote one of the most important biographical accounts of the Buddha's life, called Buddhacarita. This became also the first complete biography of the Buddha. Perhaps the most important theologian of early Buddhism was Nargarjuna (second century). Nagarjuna was the founder of the Madhyamika (Middle Way) school, which exercised tremendous influence in India and beyond for centuries to come. Another important early author was Kumarajiva (344–413), a Buddhist scholar and missionary from Central Asia. Kumarajiva exerted profound influence in China as a translator of Buddhist terminology and philosophy. Buddhaghosa (fifth century) ranks among the greatest Buddhist scholars in the religion's history. He translated Sinhalese commentaries into Pali, wrote numerous commentaries himself, and composed the Visuddhimagga (later translated as Path of Purification by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli).
Asanga (310–390) was the founder of the Yogacara school of Buddhism. He is closely associated with the Indian philosopher Vasubandhu (fourth century), whom he converted to Mahayana Buddhism. The two, who are thought to have been half brothers, founded the Yogacara school of Mahayana Buddhism. Vasubandhu's text the Abhidharmakosa (written before his conversion to Mahayana) is one of the fullest expositions of the Abhidharma teachings of the Sarvastivada school. Dhammapala (sixth to seventh century) was the author of numerous commentaries on the Pali canon and stands as one of the most influential figures in the Theravada. Shantideva (eighth century) is a later but hugely influential representative of the Madhyamika school and author of two important works, the Shikshasamuccaya (Compendium of Doctrines) and Bodhicaryavatara (Entering the Path of Enlightenment). The latter is still used in Tibetan Buddhism as a teaching text.
The Buddhist community is structured as a self-governing body of individuals, each of whom is theoretically equal and intent on his or her own salvation while compassionately mindful of fellow beings. As soon as Buddhist monks began to form into groups, however, there was a need for rules (contained in the Vinaya Pitaka) and also for a degree of hierarchy to enforce the rules and maintain religious purity within the community. This hierarchy was, and continues to be, based on seniority—the longer a person has been a monk, the more seniority he has. There is thus no single authority in the Buddhist world. Rather, most traditions have a spiritual leader or group of leaders who provide guidance to the community as a whole, and the degree of
internal hierarchy varies considerably from school to school and country to country.
There has always been a symbiosis between the sangha and the laity. The sangha depends on the lay practitioners for material support, while the laity depends on the monks for religious instruction. In these roles they keep each other in check. The laity ensures the purity of the sangha in that unless the community of monks remains well regulated and pure, the laity's gifts will not bear fruit (positive karma); likewise, the sangha serves as a constant reminder and model to the laity of the proper, salvifically beneficial religious life.
Houses of Worship and Holy Places
The oldest holy sites in Buddhism came to be associated with the places where the Buddha's relics were deposited. Tradition holds that after the Buddha's body was cremated, his remains were divided into several portions that were set up in burial mounds (stupas) at important crossroads. These places provided opportunities for laypeople and monks to contemplate the Buddha's teachings. The number of these reliquaries soon multiplied—Ashoka is said to have divided the relics into 84,000 pieces, placing them in stupas throughout his empire—most of which were then entrusted to monasteries for maintenance and protection. Hence, not only were monasteries places of residence for monks, they also became meeting places for the laity, places to hear the dharma and to pay homage to the Buddha. Now virtually every monastic complex has a reliquary or stupa and a central meeting hall where the monks gather to recite the twice-monthly Patimokkha (the Vinaya rules) and receive donations from the laity, and also where the laity gather to hear dharma talks.
In medieval India eight special pilgrimage places developed, all associated with significant events in the Buddha's life. Bodh Gaya, for instance, is the site of his enlightenment and continues to be a major place of pilgrimage for monks and lay practitioners from throughout the Buddhist world. It is also home to several large monastic institutions that serve as focal points for Buddhists from many different countries and traditions. As Buddhism developed in places outside India, the local traditions identified new holy sites, some with mythological connections, others of historical or national significance.
What Is Sacred
The earliest Buddhist traditions placed particular emphasis on the remains of the Buddha, which were divided into three basic categories: physical relics, such as bones and teeth; objects that the Buddha had used, such as his robe and relic bowl; and representations or images of the Buddha. Tradition holds that Ashoka divided the physical relics into 84,000 portions and distributed them throughout India. This is clearly an exaggeration, since the number of bodily relics enshrined in stupas throughout the Buddhist world vastly exceeds the limits of a single physical body. Images of the Buddha are the most common object of devotion. Although it is typically held that images are to serve as objects of contemplation and emulation, an opportunity to cultivate the Buddha's own auspicious qualities, they are also often invested with a kind of physical power and, like the relics, embody something of the presence of the Buddha himself (particularly in the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools). In addition to sculptural images of the Buddha, there is in the Mahayana and Vajrayana a vast pantheon of bodhisattvas who become objects of devotion. Prominent or influential monks may become objects of devotion. In Japan, for instance, the bodies of particularly famous monks are embalmed and sometimes encased in shellac and then put on display, thus displaying a kind of present master.
Holidays and Festivals
The Buddhist tradition celebrates many special days in commemoration of specific events, most in the life of the Buddha. Some of these days mark significant birthdays (of the Buddha or of the bodhisattvas), whereas others have to do with significant events in the monastic world. Typically, on a festival day lay practitioners go to their local temple or monastery and offer food to the monks, vow to uphold the five ethical precepts (pancha sila), and listen to the dharma; they also distribute food to the poor and, for certain festivals, make offerings of robes or money to the monks.
In countries where the Theravada prevails (Thailand, Myanmar [Burma], Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Laos), the Buddhist New Year is celebrated for three days from the first full-moon day in April. In predominantly Mahayana countries (China, Japan, Korea, and Tibet), the New Year typically starts on the first full-moon day in January, although this varies from country to country.
Vesak (the Buddha's birthday) is the most significant Buddhist festival of the year, as it celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha, all of which tradition holds occurred on the same day. Vesak takes place on the first full-moon day in May. On the full-moon day of the eighth lunar month (approximately
July), the Asalha Puja Vesak takes place. This holiday commemorates the Buddha's first teaching, “The Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma,” at the Deer Park in Sarnath.
Uposatha (or Poya) Days are four monthly holy days—when there is a new moon, a full moon, and quarter moons—that are observed in Theravada countries. Pavarana Day marks the conclusion of the rainy-season retreat (vassa). The Kathina (Robe Offering) Ceremony is held on an auspicious day within one month of the conclusion of the three-month rainy-season retreat for the monastic order. The ceremony marks not only the return of the monks into the larger community but also the time when new robes and other requisites may be offered by the laity to the monks and nuns.
Specific to Myanmar (Burma), Abhidhamma Day celebrates the occasion when the Buddha is said to have gone to the Tushita heaven to teach his dead mother the Abhidharma. It is held on the full moon of the seventh month of the Burmese lunar year starting in April, which corresponds to the full-moon day in October.
In Thailand, at the end of the Kathina Festival season, the Loy Krathong (Floating Bowls) Festival takes place on the full-moon night of the 12th lunar month. People bring bowls made of leaves that they fill with flowers, candles, and incense and then float in the water. As the bowls float away, all bad luck is said to disappear. The traditional practice of Loy Krathong was meant to pay homage to the holy footprint of the Buddha on the beach of the Namada River in India.
In Sri Lanka, the Festival of the Tooth takes place in Kandy, where the tooth relic of the Buddha is enshrined. The tooth itself, kept deep inside many caskets, is never actually seen. But once a year in August, on the night of the full moon, there is a special procession for it, which was traditionally said to protect the kingdom.
Ulambana (Ancestor Day) is celebrated throughout the Mahayana tradition from the first to the 15th days of the eighth lunar month. It is believed that the gates of hell are opened on the first day, and the ghosts may visit the world for 15 days. Food offerings are made during this time to relieve the sufferings of these ghosts. On the 15th day (Ulambana), people visit cemeteries to make
offerings to the departed ancestors. Many Theravadins from Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand also observe this festival.
Avalokiteshvara's birthday is a festival that celebrates the bodhisattva ideal represented by Avalokiteshvara (Kuan Yin), who represents the perfection of compassion in the Mahayana traditions of Tibet and China. The festival occurs on the first full-moon day in March.
Mode of Dress
The most distinct dress in the Buddhist world is the robe worn by monks and nuns. The symbolic significance of this form of dress can be easily seen in the common phrase for becoming a monk, “taking the robes.” Although the color and style of robes varies considerably from country to country, as well as from school to school, all monastics wear robes. Not only does the robe physically mark the monk as distinct from the layperson, but it also serves as a physical reminder of the monk's ascetic lifestyle. The Buddha himself fashioned his own robe from scraps and recommended that his followers do the same. Today, Buddhist robes are still manufactured, largely symbolically, in the same manner, sewn together out of many smaller pieces of cloth (although not usually actual scraps). Robes are most often saffron in color, although the range of colors goes from dark red to yellow and gray, depending on the tradition to which a monk or nun belongs.
On auspicious days throughout the Buddhist world, particularly full-moon days (Uposatha Days), pious lay practitioners will wear special clothing, usually all white, to signify their purity and observe the pancha sila (five precepts). In Sri Lanka the reformer Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933) instituted this type of dress for a special kind of ascetic lay practitioner (called anagarika) permanently committed to the observation of the precepts.
Specific meals for specific occasions vary considerably throughout the Buddhist world, but virtually all traditions in all countries share two basic dietary prohibitions: alcohol is typically prohibited (always for monks), since it clouds reason and distorts judgment; likewise, meat is often shunned. Refraining from killing another being is one of the most basic ethical principles in Buddhism; it also informs Buddhist dietary practices. Vegetarianism is the ideal, certainly, but not always the practice, even in monasteries. Monks in particular are put in a kind of ethical double bind when it comes to eating. As much as they may wish to practice vegetarianism, in countries where monks go from home to home begging for their meals, they are also under an obligation to take (without grasping) whatever is offered, even if it is meat. In practice, however, this is rarely an issue because most monks acquire a dedicated group of regular lay sponsors who would be quite familiar with their spiritual teachers' vegetarian diet. The prohibition of killing always takes into account the factor of intent; if a monk has no say in the slaughter of an animal and if it was not killed specifically for him, he is free to eat it without fear of karmic taint.
On particularly important festival days, Buddhists often eat special foods. For instance, in many countries lay practitioners eat a special milk and rice mixture, a kind of gruel intended to symbolically replicate Sujata's initial gift of rice gruel to the Buddha, which enabled him to gain the strength for enlightenment.
The performance of puja (honor) is a ubiquitous form of worship throughout the Buddhist world. It is most typically directed at images of buddhas and bodhisattvas, or at the Buddha's physical relics. Although the Buddha explicitly stated that he was not to be worshipped, either while he was alive or after his death—and that it was the dharma that should, instead, be learned and practiced—puja often looks very much like worship. It can involve a great outpouring of emotion and adoration, similar to scenes of worship of a god. Buddhists frequently make offerings to images, typically fruit but also money, as a gesture of respect, as an act of renunciation, or, in some cases, in the hope of a favor in the form of happiness or prosperity. Such acts of devotion tend to be performed in temples or at stupas, but they can also be conducted in small shrines at home.
Puja typically involves not only making offerings but also meditation and prayer. Frequently a Buddhist layperson will approach an image, make an offering, and then kneel in prayer or meditation. These meditations sometimes involve a mental reconstruction of the Buddha's auspicious qualities—perhaps his compassion or his profound wisdom—with the hope of cultivating those qualities oneself. The meditation might be directed to the well-being of others, one's family members in particular, or one's ancestors. These are often individual acts of quiet and contemplative devotion, but in some settings they can also be congregational. Likewise, such devotion sometimes is quite physical in nature. In Tibet, for instance, Buddhist lay practitioners will frequently circumambulate a stupa, turning smaller prayer wheels as
they do (symbolically turning the Wheel of the Dharma), a ritual act that is also sometimes performed by making a series of bodily prostrations. Increasingly, lay practitioners are also becoming involved in formal meditation, traditionally the domain of monks. In Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), and Sri Lanka, for instance, lay meditation classes are held at monasteries and temples.
Buddhist weddings are a relatively recent phenomenon. In some instances monks officiate at such events, although this is unusual. Funerals, though, quite often involve monks, who recite sacred texts, offer prayers for the dead intended to ensure their speedy and auspicious rebirth, and in some cases chant special “protective” verses intended to ward off potentially evil spirits associated with incomplete karmic transference from one birth to the next.
The first places of pilgrimage in Buddhism were associated with the Buddha's relics. The Buddha said his followers could go to these places and feel great joy and tranquility. Furthermore, the Buddha explicitly stated that even those who died on the journey to such a place would experience the same mental and physical benefits as those who reached their destination. As Buddhism spread throughout India and the rest of Asia, new pilgrimage places emerged, some directly associated with the Buddha's relics or with important events in his life and others more local in significance. The physical act of pilgrimage became, by extension, analogous to the inner spiritual journey of those seeking liberation through the Buddhist path. As such, pilgrimage is a kind of renunciation in microcosm, a departure from—and symbolic renunciation of—the mundane and domestic world in pursuit of a higher religious goal. Pilgrims, like monks, frequently dress in simple, distinctive clothes; they take vows of chastity and abstain from any karmically harmful acts; they meditate and study. Certainly the pilgrim, unlike the monk, eventually returns to normal life, but the ideal is that he or she returns changed by the experience and shares this transformation with those who did not make the journey.
Rites of Passage
The most fundamental rite of passage for a Buddhist is recourse to the Three Refuges: “I go for refuge to the Buddha, I go for refuge to the dharma, I go for refuge to the sangha.” This is a ritual confirmation of one's intent to live as a Buddhist, to be guided by the dharma and to seek guidance from the sangha. It is also the minimal commitment for a
conversion to Buddhism. For the monk, this simple ritual is the first step in a far more elaborate rite of passage: formal ordination into the sangha. For a prospective monk, it is the beginning of a much longer process during which he will sever his ties with domestic life, a ritual of renunciation that came to be called “leaving home for homelessness.” It is followed by a series of vows, particularly the vow to follow the code of monastic discipline, the Vinaya. For lay Buddhists other significant rites of passage are birth; marriage, which in many Buddhist countries is frequently marked through specifically Buddhist vows; and death, which signals the person's transition to the next existence.
At the outset, membership in the Buddhist community was open to all, regardless of social status or gender. Moreover, conversion to Buddhism was an entirely self-motivated decision. The Buddha and his early followers displayed little missionizing zeal; they spread the dharma not to gain converts but to share the dharma in order to alleviate the suffering that pervades samsara. In due course, membership in the sangha was somewhat restricted. Soldiers serving in the king's army, servants, slaves, and underage children were all barred from entry, unless they could provide evidence of their parents' permission (in the case of children) or that their masters had released them from service (in the case of slaves). Likewise, the Buddha prohibited the ill and disabled from joining the sangha, no doubt because he feared that his monasteries would soon be transformed into hospices for the infirm. The Buddha also hesitated to admit women into the sangha, worried about the tension this would cause among the monks. But very soon, he changed his mind, largely as a result of the repeated requests of Ananda, and began to welcome women into his community.
Buddhists have never displayed a great zeal to spread their religion at the expense of an existing faith. There is nothing in the Buddha's teaching that calls for displacement or mass conversion. In most countries, Buddhist ideals found their way into indigenous practices. In China, Buddhist ideals became enmeshed with those of Taoism and Confucianism; in Tibet, indigenous beliefs found a niche in the New Bon tradition, which came to amalgamate the two traditions. This meant that in practice Buddhism typically spread through converts who came to the dharma of their own accord rather than as a result of a missionary drive. In the modern era, Buddhism has grown largely through immigration of Asians to Europe and North America, particularly since the end of World War II. These immigrants set up temples in their adopted countries, which draw in curious non-Asian aficionados. Because many of these temples were often built by lay Buddhists, they also provided a new and expanded role for laity practitioners.
In Asia, too, many popular new movements have emerged during this same period. The lay movement Soka Gakkai International, which began in Japan in 1930 but has spread throughout the world, adopts the teachings of the 13th-century Zen teacher Nichiren. It focuses on a kind of practical self-transformation through chanting. In Sri Lanka the Sarvodaya movement (founded in the 1950s) has expanded Buddhist membership by focusing on practical, village-oriented development projects with a decidedly Buddhist orientation. In Thailand the Dhammakaya movement, founded by the monk Phramongkolthepmuni (1885–1959), has become enormously popular. India has witnessed a resurgence of Buddhism among the untouchable population since the public conversion of the minister of law, B. R. Ambedkar (there are now some 6 million Ambedkar, or Dalit, Buddhists in India).
Because of its emphasis on self-effort and the recognition that people learn and progress at different rates, Buddhism has always been a profoundly tolerant religious tradition. Its followers have tended to view other religions not so much as competitors but as different versions of the same basic quest for truth and salvation. Indeed, the Buddha never proposed that his was the only path but rather that it was the most efficacious and reliable way to liberation; people who follow other religious traditions, an early text states, are like a man slowly walking to his destination; the Buddhist, in contrast, sits on a fast-moving cart hurrying to the same destination. In time, the walker and the rider both reach their destinations, but the person in the cart will do so much sooner.
Of course, Buddhists have also participated in polemical attacks against other religions. The charged debates between Buddhist and Hindu masters are well documented in Indian historical and doctrinal sources. Moreover, Buddhists are known to have clashed, sometimes violently, with members of other religions. In modern Sri Lanka, for instance, Buddhists and Hindus have been fighting against each other in a civil war that has taken the lives of tens of thousands of innocent victims. However, this and other such conflicts are rooted not in religious differences but rather in ethnic and political tension.
On the surface it would appear that Buddhism is not a religion that is well equipped to take a stance in social issues; its central concern is the liberation of the individual. The Buddha, however, did not set out to achieve enlightenment for his own spiritual fulfillment but was driven by the desire to alleviate the suffering of all beings. It is this fundamental emphasis on compassion that informs and calibrates the Buddhist sense of social justice.
In the latter part of the 20th century there emerged across the Buddhist world a phenomenon often labeled “Engaged Buddhism” that addresses issues such as poverty, education, and human rights.
The number of Buddhist organizations that tackle economic issues throughout the world has grown tremendously since the middle of the 20th century. These organizations participate in a wide range of activities, from those that operate purely on the village level to those with a decidedly international scope. One of the most prolific modern Buddhist groups to deal with poverty is Sarvodaya, which began in 1958 with the purpose of addressing social, economic, and environmental issues in Sri Lanka. In 1987 the group started Sarvodaya Economic Enterprises Development Services (SEEDS), intended explicitly to address poverty and economic issues. SEEDS aims to eradicate poverty through developing, at the local and village level, means for sustainable livelihood. SEEDS provides vocational training, helps local groups develop projects related to agriculture and marketing, assists in technical issues, and provides low-interest loans to help start sustainable projects.
Although this is a movement specific to Sri Lanka, countless other such movements have emerged in South, Southeast, and East Asia. For instance, the Metta Dana Project, based in central Myanmar (Burma), is a similar grassroots organization that focuses not only on poverty but also on health care and educational issues. Likewise, the Tzu Chi Foundation, in Taiwan, in addition to addressing a large number of social issues, provides a range of charities and economic relief, including home repair, medical aid, food distribution, and funeral assistance. In India the Karuna Trust, formed in 1980 by a group of Western Buddhists, focuses specifically on India's approximately 6 million formerly untouchable Buddhist converts, sometimes called Dalit Buddhists, providing disaster relief and support for a wide range of economic development projects.
Buddhist education has traditionally taken place in the monasteries: this is where monks receive their education and deliver dharma talks to lay practitioners. Henry Steel Olcott was among the first to promote a more formal educational system for Buddhist monks. Together with the Sri Lankan reformer Anagarika Dharmapala, Olcott established in Sri Lanka in the latter half of the 19th century a network of separate Buddhist schools. Since then, Buddhist schools have been founded, with varying degrees of success, throughout Asia. One particularly important aspect has been the education of women. As new female monastic movements emerged across Asia, the education of girls and young women attained greater prominence and priority. In Taiwan, for example, the Fo Guang Shan movement became active in Buddhist education to establish a network of schools from primary schools to college, for both males and females.
Buddhist groups concerned with human rights began to achieve widespread recognition during the Vietnam
War, when Buddhist monks joined the antiwar protests. They spoke out not only against American military involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia but also against the rule of the communist regimes that governed those countries. A particularly prominent figure in this movement was Thich Nhat Hanh (1926– ), an outspoken but humble monk who left Vietnam in 1966 to take up residence in France, where he has continued to be an important voice. He has published many books and founded the Plum Village, a Buddhist retreat in France that promotes a cross-cultural, interdenominational appreciation of human life.
Buddhist human rights activists have also been active in Myanmar (Burma) and Tibet. The Free Burma Coalition (FBC), for instance, is an umbrella organization that was founded in 1995 by a group of Burmese and American graduate students to address human rights violations by Myanmar's military. FBC is associated with the National League for Democracy, a group that has been led by Aung San Suu Kyi (1945– ), the 1991 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. FBC is a large network of activists, dissident academics in exile, labor groups, and refugees, all working to ensure the protection of human rights in Myanmar's highly volatile political climate, often through Internet campaigns. Since the 1950s and the exile of the Dalai Lama to India, many human rights groups with an interest in Buddhism have worked for the Tibetan cause. In part on the initiative of Dalai Lama, numerous groups in the West and in Tibet have worked to monitor and protect human rights in that country by organizing protests, mounting letter-writing campaigns, appealing to foreign governments for political and economic pressure, and the like. In China and Japan, prominent Buddhist organizations such as Soka Gakkai and Fo Kuang Shan have continued to highlight human rights violations, as have other Buddhist organizations and movements throughout Asia and the West.
Buddhist texts are essentially silent on the subject of marriage. Although the Buddha did not lay out rules on married life, he did offer basic guidelines for how to live happily within marriage. Married people should be honest and faithful and avoid adultery—indeed, one of the ethical rules in the pancha sila is the prohibition of sexual misconduct, which is frequently taken in practice to be the endorsement of marital fidelity and monogamy.
In the Parabhava Sutta, for instance, a significant cause of human error and negative karma is involvement with multiple women. As for polygyny, the Buddhist laity are advised to limit themselves to one wife.
In most Buddhist countries marriage is a completely secular affair that does not call for the participation of Buddhist monks. In many South and Southeast Asian countries, marriage is traditionally arranged through family connections, based on, among other elements, social standing, education, and compatibility of horoscopes. Although monks may be invited to a marriage ceremony, they do not conduct the wedding ceremony itself but contribute blessings as the newly married couple sets out on a new stage of their lives. Ceremonies vary considerably from country to country. In the Theravada tradition, for example, the couple might recite a religious text describing marital duties, such as the Sigalovada Sutta, or chant in unison devotional works, such as the Mangala Sutta, to generate merit for a harmonious future.
Buddhist views about the family tend to be general and derive from the conviction that all beings are ultimately connected through their actions. Because the traditional Buddhist family tends to be large and includes aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and so on, one has a duty to honor and respect both one's immediate family and one's extended family. In a famous statement the Buddha remarked that one should be kind and compassionate to all living beings because there can be found no being who was not once in some former life one's brother, sister, mother, or father. In many Buddhist countries, particularly those of East Asia, one of the most important familial duties is toward one's dead ancestors, who are thought to exist in a special realm and who depend on the living to continue to honor and care for them. Here as in many other regions of Asia, the organization of the family unit is also shaped by geographic and economic circumstances. Buddhism, on the whole, does not influence domestic decisions.
Because Buddhism has no single, centralized religious authority, and because it places emphasis on individual effort rather than collective vision, it is rare for Buddhists to put forward a single position on any one controversial issue. Many Buddhists believe that most issues are best decided by the individual or negotiated through the interpretation of the ethical guidelines laid down by the historical Buddha himself, and subsequently elaborated upon in the Vinaya Pitaka. One central tenet that informs the Buddhist positions on such controversial issues as capital punishment or abortion is the prohibition on harming other living beings. Certain issues, such as divorce or manifestations of human sexuality, are often left to the individuals involved, provided that they do not violate basic Buddhist ethical precepts.
Buddhism has not developed a view that would compel its followers to shun birth control. Most traditions allow its followers to use both traditional or modern measures to prevent conception. Buddhists generally believe that birth control does not harm life but merely disrupts, temporarily, the inevitable operation of the law of dependent origination.
Abortion constitutes a more difficult, ambiguous issue. The precept that prohibits killing (and harming) other beings is governed by five conditions that need to be met for killing to take place. The first of these is the presence of a living being. A Buddhist's stance on abortion thus very much depends on his or her view on whether, or from what stage onward, the embryo constitutes a living being. Very often, this matter is as contested in Buddhism as it is in the other world religions.
In light of its reliance on effort and personal responsibility, one might expect Buddhism to be entirely open to the admission of women to the order. If an individual's ability to achieve enlightenment is purely the result of personal initiative, gender should, in theory, not hinder one's spiritual attainment any more than caste or economic background. In practice, however, the status of women has been anything but clear in Buddhism.
The early texts often portray women in a negative light, mainly because they kindle lust in men and so become an obstacle to the spiritual advancement of monks. They are routinely identified with the forces of illusion and passionate grasping. Of course, the texts also contain positive images of women—as mothers, devoted wives, protectors of home and family, and model donors. This last role is particularly important, for among the laity it is women who are often most actively involved in the support of the sangha through the provision of alms.
Similarly contested is the status of female monks in the sangha. The Buddha himself hesitated for a long time before he allowed his aunt Mahapajapati to join the sangha. Moreover, he stipulated that female monks (in Pali, bhikkhuni) must observe many more rules than male monks, for their own good and for the good of the sangha. The lineage of female monastics died out fairly early in the Theravada tradition, however. It was only in the modern era, and as the result of the efforts of Western female Buddhists, that the institution of the female Theravada
sangha was revived. The reaction of the male monks was often marked by suspicion or outright hostility, no doubt out of fear for their age-old privilege as sole custodians of the teachings of the Buddha. Still, in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, women monastics managed to acquire an important voice in Buddhist affairs. China and Korea are the only Asian countries that allow for full female ordination since their Dharmaguptaka vinaya lineage has remained intact, without disruption.
In the Buddhist tradition of Tibet, female monks are a more common sight than in Theravada countries, but even here their status remains essentially unresolved. The lineage of Tibetan nuns was lost about 1,000 years ago and has never been reconstituted, so most female monastics practice without full ordination. In the early 1980s a small group of women launched an initiative to reconstitute full female ordination in Tibetan Buddhism. The first allfemale monastery was built in 1996 in India's Ladakh region, which has a large population of Tibetan Buddhists. Similarly, Thai Buddhist women began to organize a female monastic order in the 1970s. In Sri Lanka in the 1980s, a German devotee, Ayya Khema, instituted a female monastic order that has grown ever since. These initiatives led to the founding of the International Association of Buddhist Women in 2000. It is an umbrella organization that brings together the various female sanghas and provides a vital nexus of unity and activism.
The monastic codes of all schools prohibits monks from listening to music or dancing, because it is believed that such things impair one's control over the senses, a kind of indulgence and distraction that is not conducive to mindfulness. Nonetheless, monks have often chanted Buddhist texts, and the effect can be almost musical. In contemporary Sri Lanka a special class of monks is trained in chanting. The recordings of their recitations are frequently sold as popular music in shops and market stalls. The monks themselves have been careful to emphasize that these recordings are not intended for aesthetic enjoyment but rather are an effective way to transmit and preserve the dharma. In Tibet and East Asia different forms of chanting, sometimes accompanied by musical instruments, are both common and popular. For the laity, music can constitute a form of offering (dana) and become an expression of faith in the Buddha's teachings. Furthermore, at many Buddhist temples throughout the Buddhist world, the rhythmic beat of the drums, the melodies of flutes, and the loud interjection of horns, together with lyrical chanting, are an integral part of many ritual performances.
Some of the earliest examples of Buddhist art and architecture are the great stupas of Bharhut, Sanchi, and Amaravati. Traditions holds that these stupas contain relics of the historical Buddha. Some of these monuments were embellished with spectacular stone reliefs, imposing entrance gates, and elaborate imagery. These adornments and sculptures were intended to visually convey the teachings of the Buddha to lay practitioners and monks alike at a time when literacy was very limited. They typically depict the main events in the Buddha's life, such as his defeat of the evil Mara or Sujata's gift of sustenance, which enabled Siddhartha to attain enlightenment.
In spite of extensive scholarly investigation, the question of the origin of the Buddha image has not yet been fully resolved. Some believe that the Buddhists began to depict the Buddha early on, perhaps even before he died. The Buddha himself said that images of him are permissible provided that they are not worshipped. For him, such images provided an opportunity for reflection and meditation. The first images of the Buddha in human form emerged in Gandhara (now part of Afghanistan) during the first century BCE, probably crafted by Greek artisans trained in the anthropomorphic depiction of the Hellenistic pantheon. Other early specimens were found near Mathura in northern India in roughly the same period, with somewhat different features from their Gandharan counterparts. Today, virtually all Buddhist temples and monasteries throughout the world contain sculptural images of the Buddha and the bodhisattvas. These images range from simple stone sculptures of the Buddha to intricate depictions of a bodhisattva like Kanon in Japan, with his thousand heads and elaborate hand gestures and iconographic details. Although these images function in the ritual context of the temple and monastery, they also serve an artistic and aesthetic purpose.
In the monasteries of Tibet, one of the most popular and widespread artistic products is the mandala. Mandalas serve as aids in meditation that depict a world populated by bodhisattvas and other beings. They are often painted on cloth scrolls but can also be built in three-dimensional media or made out of sand (to emphasize the impermanence of all phenomena). Mandalas are intended to lead the meditator visually from the outer world of appearance and illusion to the “truth” of existence through direct perception of emptiness.
In East Asia, Zen has profoundly influenced the arts, and there is a long, rich tradition of Buddhist painting. Painting here becomes an instrument in meditation, a method to attain insight into the immediacy of the moment and the transiency of the natural world. Other important Buddhist artistic genres in East Asia include archery, gardening, and the tea ceremony, all of which are held to contribute to spiritual progress in rituals and meditation.
Most of the Buddhist architecture of India disappeared long ago, although Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment, continues to be a vital center for Buddhists from all corners of the world. Some of the most spectacular examples of Buddhist architecture are preserved in Southeast Asia. At Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, for instance, Buddhist kings constructed an enormous monument that re-creates the cosmic hierarchy of divine and semidivine beings. The ruins of other monuments have survived in Pagan, Myanmar (Burma); in the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka; and in the ancient cities of Thailand. One of the most magnificent examples of Buddhist art and architecture is the temple complex at Borobudur, on the island of Java in Indonesia, an almost unfathomably elaborate and extensive architectural marvel.
Revised by Ulrich Pagel
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