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