Buddhism is one of the major religions of the world. It was founded
by Siddhartha Guatama (Buddha) in Northeastern India. It arose as a monastic
movement during a time of Brahman tradition. Buddhism rejected important views
of Hinduism. It did not recognize the validity of the Vedic Scriptures, nor
the sacrificial cult which arose from it. It also questioned the authority
of the priesthood. Also, the Buddhist movement was open to people of all castes,
denying that a persons worth could be judged by their blood.
of Buddhism has 150 to 350 million followers around the world. The wide range
is due to two reasons. The tendency for religious affiliation to be nonexclusive
is one. The other is the difficulty in getting information from Communist
countries such as China. Its followers have divided into two main branches:
Theravada and Mahayana. Theravada, the way of the elders, is dominant in India,
Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. Mahayana, the greater vehicle,
refers to the Theravada as Hinayana, the lesser vehicle. It is dominant in
India, Tibet, Japan, Nepal, Taiwan, China, Korea, Vietnam, and Mongolia.
Guatama was born in Kapilivastu. His father was the ruler of the small kingdom
near the Indian/Nepal border. As a child, his future was foretold by sages.
They believed that he would someday be a fellow sage or leader of a great
empire. He led a very pampered and sheltered life until the age of twenty-nine.
It was at that time that he realized that he had led an empty life. He renounced
his wealth and embarked on a journey to seek truth, enlightenment, and the
cycle of rebirths.
In the first years of his journey, Siddhartha Guatama
practiced yoga and became involved in radical asceticism. After a short time,
he gave up that life for one of a middle path between indulgence and self-denial.
He meditated under a bo tree until he reached true enlightenment by rising
through a series of higher states of consciousness. After realizing this religious
inner truth, he went through a time of inner struggle. Renaming himself Buddha
(meaning enlightened one), he wandered from place to place, preaching, spreading
his teachings by word of mouth. He also gained disciples, who were grouped
into a monastic community known as a sangha.
As he neared his death, Buddha
refused a successor. He told his followers to work hard to find their salvation.
After his death, it was decided that a new way to keep the communitys unity
and purity was needed, since the teachings of Buddha were spoken only. To
maintain peace, the monastic order met to decide on matters of Buddhist doctrines
and practice. Four of these meetings are considered to be the Four Major Councils.
first major council was presided over by Mahakasyapa, a Buddhist monk. The
purpose of the first council was to preach and agree on Buddhas teachings
and monastic discipline.
The second major council supposedly met at Vaisali,
one hundred years after the first. The purpose of this council was to answer
the ten questionable acts of the monks of the Vajjian Confederacy. The use
of money, drinking wine, and other irregularities were among the acts. It
was decided that the practices were unlawful. This decision has been found
to be the cause of the division of the Buddhists. The accounts of the meeting
describe a quarrel between the Mahasanghikas (Great Assembly) and the Sthaviras
(Elders). Tensions had grown within the sangha over discipline, the role of
laity, and the nature of arhat.
Pataliputra, now Patna, was the sight of
the third council. It was called by King Asoka in the 3rd century BC, and
was convened by Moggaliptta. The purpose was the purify the sangha of the
false monks and heretics who had joined the order because of its royal associations.
During the council, the compilations of the Buddhist scriptures (Tipitaka)
and the body of subtle philosophy (abhidharma) to the dharma and monastic discipline
were completed. Missionaries were sent forth to many countries as a result
of the council.
King Kanishka patronged the fourth council in 100 AD. Historians
are not sure if it was held at either Kasmir or Jalanhar. Both divisions of
Buddhism are said to have participated in the council. The council tried to
establish peace between them. However, neither side was willing to give in.
Because of this, the religion divided into many sects, including the traditional
The traditional eighteen schools of Buddhism were
a result of different interpretations of Buddhist teachings. Together, these
divisions were seen as too conservative and literal towards the teachings of
Buddha. Theravada was considered too individualistic and unconcerned with
the needs of the laity. It caused a liberal wing of the sangha to break away
from the rest of the monks during the second council. Original group of monks
continued their honoring of Buddha as a perfectly enlightened human teacher.
However, the liberal Mahasanghikas developed a new interpretation. They began
to think of Buddha as an eternal, all powerful being. Believing the human
Buddha was an apparition sent down for human benefit, the Mahasanghikas began
Not even the names of Mahayanas founders are known. Historians
argue whether or not the new sect began in southern or northwestern India.
However, they have narrowed the date to in between the 2nd century BC and
the 1st century AD. Beliefs in a godlike Buddha continued well past the era
of Christianity and came together in the Mahayana doctrine of threefold nature.
spread throughout Asia after the two divisions came about. King Asokas children,
Mahinda and Sanghamitta, are responsible for the Buddhist conversion of Sri
Lanka. During the reign of Asoka, it is said that Theravada was introduced
to Burma by Sri Lanka, around 5th century AD. Burma spread Theravada to Thailand
in the 6th century. Cambodia was influenced by Mahayana and Hinduism at the
end of the 2nd century. Nearly one-thousand two- hundred years later, Theravada
became the primary religion.
At the beginning of the Christian era, Buddhism
was introduced to Central Asia. From there, it entered China through trade
routes. It influenced and adapted to Chinese culture. It was opposed by many,
though, and its followers were persecuted at times. Buddhisms major Chinese
influence ended after a great persecution in 845 AD. However, the meditative
Zen sect and the Pure Land sect continued to thrive.
from Confucian authorities, Mahayanas influence was seen in Vietnam by 189.
China introduced Buddhism to Korea in 372 AD. From that point on, it was
gradually converted through Chinese influence for many centuries. Korea introduced
Buddhism to Japan in 552 AD. Prince Shotoku made it the official state religion
of Japan forty-one years later.
Tibet was introduced to Buddhism by foreign
wives of the king starting in the 7th century AD. By the next century, it
had become an important aspect of Tibetan culture. It was spread by the Indian
monk, Padmasambhava, who had arrived there in 747 AD to spread Tantric Buddhism.
Several centuries later, Tibetan Buddhists began to believed that the abbots
of its great monastaries were reincarnated bodhisattvas, individuals who have
attained perfect enlightenment but delay entry into final nirvana in order
to make possible the salvation of others who had not reached enlightenment.
The chief abbots became known as the Dalai Lama, the ruler of Tibet. They
ruled as a theocracy from the 17th century until the Chinese takeover in 1950.
of Buddhisms greatest strengths is its ability to adapt to many conditions
under a variety of cultures. It is opposed to materialism. It does not recognize
a conflict between itself and modern science. On the contrary, it holds that
the Buddha applied the experimental approach to the questions of ultimate truth.
Growing interest in Asian culture and spiritual values in the West has
led to the development of a number of studies and practice of Buddhism. Zen
has grown in the United States to create more than a dozen meditation centers
and a number of monastaries. Interest in Vajrayana has also increased. As
its influence in the west slowly grows, Buddhism is once again changing and
adapting to the new environment. Although its influence in the United States
is still small, it seems that if Buddhism repeats its history, new forms and
sects of Buddhism may develop.