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Buddhism

Related subjects Religion; Religious movements, traditions and organizations

Buddhism, a Dharmic faith, is usually considered one of the world's major religions, with between 230 to 500 million followers. Buddhism is divided into two main branches, Mahayana and Theravada, with the former further subdivided into East Asian (including Pure Land, Chan/Zen, Nichiren, Shingon and others) and Tibetan (sometimes grouped with Shingon under the term Vajrayana) branches. These branches are distinguished from each other by a combination of doctrinal differences and regional syncretisms.

Buddhism centers on the teachings of Gautama Buddha, who lived in parts of what is now Nepal and northeast India circa the fifth century BCE. There is some disagreement between denominations over which texts should be attributed to Buddha and be included as part of the buddha-dharma, the doctrine of Buddhism, and further disagreement about the relative importance of generally accepted teachings. This makes any definitive claim about the precepts of Buddhism difficult. Nearly all Buddhists recognize some version of the Tipitaka ("Three Baskets"), though it plays a far more central role in Theravada than in Mahayana. Mahayana Buddhists recognize a set of texts called the Mahayana Sutras which Theravadins do not accept.

Main traditions

The most common way scholars categorize Buddhist schools follows the major languages of the extant Buddhist canons, which exist in Pāli, Tibetan (also found in Mongolian translation) and Chinese collections, along with some texts that still exist in Sanskrit and Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit. This is a useful division for practical purposes, but does not necessarily correspond to philosophical or doctrinal divisions since, despite the differences, there are common threads to almost all Buddhist branches:

  • All accept the Buddha as their teacher.
  • All accept the Middle Way, Dependent origination, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, in theory, though in practice these have little or no importance in some traditions.
  • All accept that both the members of the laity and of the Sangha can pursue the path toward enlightenment ( bodhi).
  • All consider Buddhahood to be the highest attainment; however Theravada consider the Nibbana attained by Arahants as identical to that attained by the Buddha himself, as there is only one type of Nibbana. According to Theravada, a Buddha is someone that had discovered the path all by himself and taught it to others.
Image:Beijingmonk.jpg
Chinese Mahayana Buddhist monk lighting incense in a Beijing temple.

History and origins

The Buddha

Gautama, whose personal name was Siddhartha, was born in the city of Lumbini and was raised in Kapilavastu.

The traditional story of his life is as follows; little of this can be regarded as established historical fact. Born a prince, his father, King Suddhodana, was visited by a wise man shortly after Siddhartha was born. The wise man said that Siddhartha would either become a great king ( chakravartin) or a holy man ( Sadhu) based on whether or not he ever saw life outside of the palace walls. Determined to make Siddhartha a king, the father tried to shield his son from the unpleasant realities of daily life. However, despite his father's efforts, at the age of 29, he discovered the suffering of his people, first through an encounter with an elderly man, then on subsequent trips outside the palace, he encountered a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and a monk or an ascetic. These are often termed 'The Four Sights.'

Gautama was deeply depressed by these four sights and sought to overcome old age, illness, and death by living the life of an ascetic. Gautama escaped his palace, leaving behind this royal life to become a mendicant. For a time on his spiritual quest, Buddha "experimented with extreme asceticism, which at that time was seen as a powerful spiritual practice...such as fasting, holding the breath, and exposure of the body to pain...he found, however, that these ascetic practices brought no genuine spiritual benefits and in fact, being based on self-hatred, that they were counterproductive."

He abandoned asceticism and concentrated instead upon meditation and, according to some sources, Anapanasati (awareness of breathing in and out), Gautama is said to have discovered what Buddhists call the Middle Way—a path of moderation that lies mid-way between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. He accepted a little milk and rice pudding from a village girl and then, sitting under a pipal tree or Sacred fig (Ficus religiosa), also known as the Bodhi tree, in Bodh Gaya, he vowed never to arise until he had found the Truth. His five companions, believing that he had abandoned his search and become undisciplined, left. After 49 days meditating, at the age of 35, he attained bodhi, also known as "Awakening" or "Enlightenment" in the West. After his attainment of bodhi he was known as Buddha or Gautama Buddha and spent the rest of his life teaching his insights ( Dharma). According to scholars, he lived around the fifth century BCE, but his more exact birthdate is open to debate. He died at the age of 80 in Kushinagara (Pali Kusinara) (India).

Early Buddhism

The history of Indian Buddhism may be divided into the following five periods:

  1. Early Buddhism (also called Pre-sectarian Buddhism); Hajime Nakamura subdivides this into two subperiods:
    1. original Buddhism (other scholars call this earliest Buddhism or precanonical Buddhism)
    2. early Buddhism
  2. Period of the Early Buddhist schools (also called Sectarian Buddhism, Nikaya Buddhism)
  3. Early Mahayana Buddhism
  4. Later Mahayana Buddhism
  5. Vajrayana Buddhism (also called Esoteric Buddhism)

These developments were not always consecutive. For example, the early schools continued to exist alongside Mahayana. Some scholars have argued that Mahayana remained marginal for centuries.

The term Early Buddhism can be applied to both Pre-sectarian Buddhism and the Buddhism of the Early Buddhist Schools.

Sutta Pitaka and Vinaya Pitaka

The earliest phase of Buddhism (pre-sectarian Buddhism) recognized by nearly all scholars (the main exception is Dr Gregory Schopen,) is based on a comparison of the Pali Canon with surviving portions of other early canons. Its main scriptures are the Vinaya Pitaka and the four principal Nikayas or Agamas.

Certain basic teachings appear in many places throughout the early texts, so most scholars conclude at least that the Buddha must have taught something of the kind:

  • the three characteristics
  • the five aggregates
  • dependent arising
  • karma and rebirth
  • the four noble truths
  • the eightfold path
  • nirvana

Some scholars disagree, and have proposed many other theories.

Rebirth has no discernible beginning, and takes place in a variety of types of life, later formally classified as the Five or Six Realms.

The karma of good and bad deeds produces "rewards" and "punishments" either in this life or in a subsequent one. These may be either rebirths themselves or events therein. The content of bad deeds and the lower types of good deeds belongs to the subject of Sila or conduct. Higher rebirths can be attained by the practice of forms of meditation later classified as samatha or samadhi.

Councils

According to the scriptures, soon after the parinirvāṇa (Pāli: parinibbāna, "complete extinguishment") of the Buddha, the first Buddhist council was held. As with any ancient Indian tradition, transmission of teaching was done orally. The primary purpose of the assembly was to collectively recite the teaching to ensure that no errors occur in oral transmission. In the first council, Ānanda, a cousin of the Buddha and his personal attendant, was called upon to recite the discourses ( sūtras, Pāli suttas) of the Buddha, and, according to some sources, the abhidhamma. Upāli, another disciple, recited the monastic rules (Vinaya). Scholars regard the traditional accounts of the council as greatly exaggerated if not entirely fictitious.

According to most scholars, at some period after the Second Council however, the Sangha began to break into separate factions. (Schopen suggests that Buddhism was very diverse from the beginning and became less so.) The various accounts differ as to when the actual schisms occurred: according to the Dipavamsa of the Pali tradition, they started immediately after the Second Council; the Puggalavada tradition places it in 137 AN; the Sarvastivada tradition of Vasumitra says it was in the time of Asoka; and the Mahasanghika tradition places it much later, nearly 100 BCE.

The Asokan edicts, our only contemporary sources, state that 'the Sangha has been made unified'. This may refer to a dispute such as that described in the account of the Third Buddhist Council at Pataliputta. This concerns the expulsion of non-Buddhist heretics from the Sangha, and does not speak of a schism. However, the late Professor Hirakawa argued that the first schism occurred after the death of Asoka. These schisms occurred within the traditions of Early Buddhism, at a time when the Mahāyāna movement either did not exist at all, or only existed as a current of thought not yet identified with a separate school.

The root schism was between the Sthaviras and the Mahāsāṅghikas. The fortunate survival of accounts from both sides of the dispute reveals disparate traditions. The Sthavira group offers two quite distinct reasons for the schism. The Dipavamsa of the Theravāda says that the losing party in the Second Council dispute broke away in protest and formed the Mahasanghika. This contradicts the Mahasanghikas' own vinaya, which shows them as on the same, winning side. On the other hand, the northern lineages, including the Sarvastivada and Puggalavada (both branches of the ancient Sthaviras) attribute the Mahāsāṅghika schism to the '5 points' that erode the status of the arahant. For their part, the Mahāsāṅghikas argued that the Sthaviras were trying to expand the Vinaya; they may also have challenged what they perceived to be excessive claims or inhumanly high criteria for Arhatship. Both parties, therefore, appealed to tradition. The Sthaviras gave rise to several schools, one of which was the Theravāda school. Originally, these schisms were caused by disputes over vinaya, and monks following different schools of thought seem to have lived happily together in the same monasteries, but eventually, by about 100 CE if not earlier, schisms were being caused by doctrinal disagreements too.

Further developments

Buddhist proselytism at the time of emperor Aśoka the Great (260–218 BCE).
Buddhist proselytism at the time of emperor Aśoka the Great (260–218 BCE).

Following (or leading up to) the schisms, each Saṅgha started to accumulate an Abhidharma, a collection of philosophical texts. Early sources for these probably existed in the time of the Buddha as simple lists. However, as time went on and Buddhism spread further, the (perceived) teachings of the Buddha were formalized in a more systematic manner in a new Pitaka: the Abhidhamma Pitaka. Some modern academics refer to it as Abhidhamma Buddhism. Interestingly, in the opinion of some scholars, the Mahasanghika school did not have an Abhidhamma Pitaka, which agrees with their statement that they did not want to add to the Buddha's teachings. But according to Chinese pilgrims Fa-hsien ( Fa Xian) (5th century CE) and Hsüan-tsang ( Xuanzang, 7th century CE), they had procured a copy of Abhidhamma which belonged to the Mahasanghika School.

Buddhist tradition records in the Milinda Panha that the 2nd century BCE Indo-Greek king Menander converted to the Buddhist faith and became an arhat.
Buddhist tradition records in the Milinda Panha that the 2nd century BCE Indo-Greek king Menander converted to the Buddhist faith and became an arhat.

Buddhism may have spread only slowly in India until the time of the Mauryan emperor Aśoka the Great, who was a public supporter of the religion. The support of Aśoka and his descendants led to the construction of more Buddhist religious memorials ( stūpas) and to efforts to spread Buddhism throughout the enlarged Maurya empire and even into neighboring lands – particularly to the Iranian-speaking regions of Afghanistan and Central Asia, beyond the Mauryas' northwest border, and to the island of Sri Lanka south of India. These two missions, in opposite directions, would ultimately lead, in the first case to the spread of Buddhism into China, and in the second case, to the emergence of Theravāda Buddhism and its spread from Sri Lanka to the coastal lands of Southeast Asia.

This period marks the first known spread of Buddhism beyond India. According to the edicts of Aśoka, emissaries were sent to various countries west of India in order to spread "Dhamma", particularly in eastern provinces of the neighboring Seleucid Empire, and even farther to Hellenistic kingdoms of the Mediterranean. This led, a century later, to the emergence of Greek-speaking Buddhist monarchs in the Indo-Greek Kingdom, and to the development of the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhāra. During this period Buddhism was exposed to a variety of influences, from Persian and Greek civilization, and from changing trends in non-Buddhist Indian religions – themselves influenced by Buddhism. It is a matter of disagreement among scholars whether or not these emissaries were, or were accompanied by Buddhist missionaries.

Rise of Mahayana Buddhism

Chinese Seated Buddha, Tang Dynasty, Hebei province, ca. 650 CE. Chinese Buddhism is of the Mahayana tradition, with popular schools today being Pure Land and Zen.
Chinese Seated Buddha, Tang Dynasty, Hebei province, ca. 650 CE. Chinese Buddhism is of the Mahayana tradition, with popular schools today being Pure Land and Zen.

The precise geographical origins of Mahayana are unknown. It is likely that various elements of Mahayana developed independently from the 1st century BCE onwards, initially within several small individual communities, in areas to the north-west within the Kushan Empire (within present-day northern Pakistan), and in areas within the Shatavahana Empire, including Amaravati to the south-east (in present-day Andhra Pradesh), to the west around the port of Bharukaccha (present-day Bharuch, a town near Bombay), and around the various cave complexes, such as Ajanta and Karli (in present-day Gujarat and Maharashtra). Some scholars have argued that Mahayana was a movement of lay Buddhists focused around stupa devotion. Pictures within the wall of a stupa representing the story of the Buddha and his previous reincarnation as a bodhisattva were used to preach Buddhism to the masses. Other scholar reject this theory. Monks representing different philosophical orientations could live in the same Sangha as long as they practiced the same Vinaya. Still, in terms of Abhidharma, the Sarvastivada school and the Dharmaguptaka school, both of which were widespread in the Kushan Empire, seem to have had major influence.

Mahayana Buddhism generally regards as its most important teaching the path of the bodhisattva. This already existed as a possibility in earlier Buddhism, as it still does in Theravada today, but the Mahayana gave it an increasing emphasis, eventually saying everyone should follow it.

Expansion of Mahayana Buddhism between the 1st – 10th century CE.
Expansion of Mahayana Buddhism between the 1st – 10th century CE.

Around the second century CE, the Kushan emperor Kanishka is said to have convened what many western scholars call the fourth Buddhist council. This council is not recognised by the Theravada line of Buddhism. According to Mahayana sources, this council did not simply rely on the original Tripitaka. Instead, a set of new scriptures, mostly notably, the Lotus Sutra, an early version of the Heart Sutra and the Amitabha Sutra were approved, as well as fundamental principles of doctrine based around the concept of salvation for all beings (hence Mahāyāna "great vehicle") and the concept of Buddhas and bodhisattvas who embody the indwelling yet transcendent Buddha-nature who strive to achieve such a goal. However, most western scholars believe this council was purely Sarvastivada, while the late Monseigneur Professor Lamotte considered it entirely fictitious. The new scriptures were first written in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit or one of the Prakrits. From that point on, and in the space of a few centuries, Mahayana would spread from India to Southeast Asia, and towards the north to Central Asia and then east to China where Mahayana was Sinicized and this Sinicized Mahayana would be passed on to Korea, Vietnam and finally to Japan in 538 CE. The East Asians would go on to write more indigenous sutras and commentaries to the Mahayana Canon.

One of the Buddhas of Bamyan, Afghanistan as it stood in 1963.
One of the Buddhas of Bamyan, Afghanistan as it stood in 1963.

Mahāyāna Buddhism received significant theoretical grounding from Nāgārjuna (perhaps c.150–250 CE), arguably the most influential scholar within the Mahāyāna tradition. Some of the writings attributed to him made explicit references to Mahāyāna texts, but his philosophy was argued within the parameters set out by the Tripiṭaka sūtras. Nāgārjuna asserted that the nature of the dharmas (hence the enlightenment) to be śūnya (void or empty), bringing together other key Buddhist doctrines, particularly anātman (no-self) and pratītyasamutpāda (dependent origination). His school of thought is known as the Madhyamaka.

After the end of the Kuṣāṇas, Buddhism flourished in India during the dynasty of the Guptas (4th – 6th century). Mahāyāna centres of learning were established, the most important one being the Nālandā University in north-eastern India. Sarvāstivāda teaching, which was criticized by Nāgārjuna, was reformulated by scholars such as Vasubandhu and Asaṅga and were adapted into the Yogācāra (Sanskrit: yoga practice) school. While the Madhyamaka school asserted that there is no ultimately real thing, the Yogācāra school asserts that only the mind is ultimately existent. These two schools of thought, in opposition or synthesis, form the basis of subsequent Mahāyāna theology in the Indo-Tibetan tradition.

Emergence of the Vajrayāna

There are differing views as to just when Vajrayāna and its tantric practice started. In the Tibetan tradition, it is claimed that the historical Śākyamuni Buddha taught tantra, but as these are esoteric teachings, they were written down long after the Buddha's other teachings. Nālandā University became a centre for the development of Vajrayāna theory and continued as the source of leading-edge Vajrayāna practices up through the 11th century. These practices, scriptures and theory were transmitted to China, Tibet, Indochina and Southeast Asia. China generally received Indian transmission up to the 11th century including tantric practice, while a vast amount of what is considered to be Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayāna) stems from the late (9th–12th century) Nālandā tradition.

In one of the first major contemporary academic treatises on the subject, Fairfield University professor Ronald M. Davidson argues that the rise of Vajrayana was in part a reaction to the changing political climate in India at the time. With the fall of the Gupta dynasty, in an increasingly fractious political environment, institutional Buddhism had difficulty attracting patronage, and the folk movement led by siddhas became more prominent. After perhaps two hundred years, it had begun to get integrated into the monastic establishment.

Vajrayana combined and developed a variety of elements, a number of which had already existed for centuries.

Although it continued to in surrounding countries, over the centuries Buddhism gradually declined in India and it was virtually extinct there by the time of the British conquest.

Southern (Theravāda) Buddhism

Theravāda ("Doctrine of the Elders", or "Ancient Doctrine") is the oldest surviving Buddhist school. It is relatively conservative, and generally closest to early Buddhism. This school is derived from the Vibhajjavāda grouping which emerged amongst the older Sthavira group at the time of the Third Buddhist Council (c. 250 BCE). This school gradually declined on the Indian subcontinent, but its branch in Sri Lanka and South East Asia continues to survive.

The Theravada school bases its practice and doctrine exclusively on the Pāli Canon and its commentaries. After being orally transmitted for a few centuries, its scriptures, the Pali Canon, were finally committed to writing in the last century BCE, in Sri Lanka, at what the Theravada usually reckon as the fourth council. It is also one of the first Buddhist schools to commit the complete set of its canon into writing. The Sutta collections and Vinaya texts of the Pāli Canon (and the corresponding texts in other versions of the Tripitaka), are generally considered by modern scholars to be the earliest Buddhist literature, and they are accepted as authentic in every branch of Buddhism.

Theravāda promotes the concept of Vibhajjavada ( Pali), literally "Teaching of Analysis". This doctrine says that insight must come from the aspirant's experience, critical investigation, and reasoning instead of by blind faith.

In Theravāda Buddhism, the cause of human existence and suffering is identified as the craving, which carried with it the various defilements. These various defilements are traditionally summed up as greed, hatred and delusion. These defilements are believed to be parasites that have infested the mind and creates suffering and stress. It is believed that in order to be free from suffering and stress these defilements need to be permanently uprooted through internal investigation, analyzing, experiencing, and understanding the true nature of those defilements by using jhana, a technique which is part of the Noble Eightfold Path. It will then lead the meditator to realize the Four Noble Truths, Enlightenment and Nibbana. Nibbana is the ultimate goals of Theravadin.

Theravāda is primarily practiced today in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia as well as small portions of China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Bangladesh. It has a growing presence in Europe and America.

Eastern (East Asian) Buddhism

Chinese Ming dynasty porcelain figure of Guanyin, "Goddess of Mercy."
Chinese Ming dynasty porcelain figure of Guanyin, "Goddess of Mercy."

Mahayana ("Great Vehicle") is an inclusive, cosmically-dimensioned faith characterized by the adoption of additional texts. Mahayana Buddhists place emphasis on the Bodhisattva ideal. Mahayana practitioners are less concerned with the traditional early Buddhist emphasis on release from suffering ( dukkha) characteristic of the Arahant, and instead vow to remain in the world to liberate all beings, without exception, from suffering. Mahayana is further typified by a pantheon of quasi-divine Bodhisattvas devoting themselves to personal excellence for the sake of rescuing others from suffering and delivering them into the bliss of Nirvana. The quest of the Bodhisattvas is for ultimate Buddhic knowledge so as to be able to effect the salvation of all humanity (and indeed all living beings, including animals, ghosts and gods).

The Mahayana branch emphasizes infinite, universal compassion (maha-karuna) or the selfless, ultra-altruistic quest of the Bodhisattva to attain the "Awakened Mind" ( bodhicitta) of Buddhahood so as to have the fullest possible knowledge of how most effectively to lead all sentient beings into Nirvana. Emphasis is also often placed on the notions of Emptiness ( shunyata), perfected spiritual insight ( prajnaparamita) and Buddha-nature (the deathless tathagatagarbha, or Buddhic Essence, inherent in all beings and creatures). The teaching of the tathagatagarbha is said by the Buddha in the tathagatagarbha sutras to constitute the "absolutely final culmination" of his Dharma—the highest presentation of Truth (other sūtras make similar statements about other teachings). This has traditionally been regarded as the highest teaching in East Asian Buddhism. However, in modern China all doctrines are regarded as equally valid. The Mahayana can also on occasion communicate a vision of the Buddha or Dharma which amounts to mysticism and gives expression to a form of mentalist panentheism ( God in Buddhism).

In addition to the Tripitaka scriptures in the narrower sense, which (within Mahayana) are viewed as valid but only provisional or basic, Mahayana schools recognize all or part of a genre of Mahayana scriptures. Some of these sutras became for Mahayanists a manifestation of the Buddha himself, and faith in and veneration of those texts are stated in some sutras (e.g. the Lotus Sutra and the Mahaparinirvana Sutra) to lay the foundations for the later attainment of Buddhahood itself.

Mahayana Buddhism shows a great deal of doctrinal variation and development over time, and even more variation in terms of practice. While there is much agreement on general principles, there is disagreement over which texts are more authoritative.

Native Eastern Buddhism is practiced today in China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, parts of Russia and most of Vietnam. The Buddhism practiced in Tibet, the Himalayan regions, and Mongolia is also Mahayana in origin, but will be discussed below under the heading of Northern Buddhism. There are a variety of strands in Eastern Buddhism, which in most of this area are fused into a single unified form of Buddhism. However, in Japan they form separate denominations. The five major ones are the following.

  • Nichiren, peculiar to Japan
  • Pure Land
  • Shingon, a form of Vajrayana
  • Tendai
  • Chan/Zen

There are estimated to be around 100 million Chinese Buddhists. Pure Land Buddhism is the most popular form in China, particularly among the laity. In the first half of the twentieth century, most Chinese monks practised Pure Land, some combining it with Chan (Zen); Chan survived into the 20th century in a small number of monasteries, but died out in mainland China after the communist takeover. In Taiwan Chan meditation is popular, but most Buddhists follow Pure Land. Nearly all Chinese Buddhists accept that the chances of attaining sufficient enlightenment by one's own efforts are very slim, so that Pure Land practice is essential as an "insurance policy" even if one practises something else.

There are estimated to be about 40 million Buddhists in Vietnam. The Buddhism of monks and educated lay people is mainly Thien (Zen), with elements of Pure Land and tantra, but that of most ordinary Buddhists has little or no Thien element, being mainly Pure Land. In Korea, nearly all Buddhists belong to the Chogye school, which is officially Son (Zen), but with substantial elements from other traditions. In Japan, the numbers of adherents are estimated as follows:

  • Pure Land 17.7m
  • mainstream Nichiren 13m (excluding radical groups like Soka Gakkai/Nichiren Shoshu, which are not always counted as Buddhist)
  • Zen 13m
  • Shingon 11.9m
  • Tendai 2.9m

Ch'an (Chinese) or Zen (Japanese) Buddhism (whose name is derived from the Sanskrit term, dhyana - "meditation") is a form of Buddhism that became strong in China and Japan and that lays special emphasis on meditation. Charles S. Prebish writes (in his Historical Dictionary of Buddhism, Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, 1993, p. 287): "Although a variety of Zen 'schools' developed in Japan, they all emphasize Zen as a teaching that does not depend on sacred texts, that provides the potential for direct realization, that the realization attained is none other than the Buddha nature possessed by each sentient being ...". Zen places less emphasis on scriptures than some other forms of Buddhism and prefers to focus on direct spiritual breakthroughs to Truth. Zen Buddhism is divided into two main schools: Rinzai and Soto, the former greatly favouring the use in meditation of the koan (meditative riddle or puzzle) as a device for spiritual break-through, and the latter (while certainly employing koans) focussing more on shikantaza or "just sitting". Prebish comments (op. cit., p. 244): "It presumes that sitting in meditation itself (i.e. zazen) is an expression of Buddha nature." The method is to detach the mind from conceptual modes of thinking and perceive Reality directly. Speaking of Zen in general, Buddhist scholar Stephen Hodge writes (Zen Masterclass, Godsfield Press, 2002, pp. 12–13): "... practitioners of Zen believe that Enlightenment, the awakening of the Buddha-mind or Buddha-nature, is our natural state, but has been covered over by layers of negative emotions and distorted thoughts. According to this view, Enlightenment is not something that we must acquire a bit at a time, but a state that can occur instantly when we cut through the dense veil of mental and emotional obscurations." Zen Buddhist teaching is often full of paradox, in order to loosen the grip of the ego and to facilitate the penetration into the realm of the True Self or Formless Self, which is equated with the Buddha himself (Critical Sermons on the Zen Tradition, Hisamatsu Shin'ichi, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2002, passim). Commenting on Rinzai Zen and its Chinese founder, Linji, Hisamatsu states: "Linji indicates our true way of being in such direct expressions as 'True Person' and 'True Self'. It is independent of words or letters and transmitted apart from scriptural teaching. Buddhism doesn't really need scriptures. It is just our direct awakening to Self ..." (Hisamatsu, op. cit., p. 46). Nevertheless, Zen does not neglect the scriptures.

The above method of self-exertion or "self-power" - without reliance on an external force or being - stands in contrast to another major form of Buddhism, "Pure Land", which is characterised by utmost trust in the salvific "other-power" of Amida Buddha. Pure Land Buddhism is a very widespread and perhaps the most faith-orientated manifestation of Buddhism and centres upon the conviction that faith in Amitabha Buddha and/or the chanting of homage to his name will provide the spiritual energy that will liberate one at death into the "happy land" (sukhavati) or "pure land" of Amitabha (called Amida in Japanese) Buddha . This Buddhic realm is variously construed as a foretaste of Nirvana, or as essentially Nirvana itself. The great vow of Amitabha Buddha to rescue all beings from samsaric suffering is viewed within Pure Land Buddhism as universally efficacious, if only people will have faith in the power of that limitless great Vow, or will utter the liberational chant of Amida's name.

Northern (Tibetan) Buddhism

Young Tibetan Buddhist monks of Drepung
Young Tibetan Buddhist monks of Drepung

Though thoroughly based upon Mahāyāna, Tibeto-Mongolian Buddhism is sometimes characterized as Vajrayāna or "Diamond Vehicle" (also referred to as Mantrayāna, Tantrayāna, Tantric Buddhism, or esoteric Buddhism). It therefore accepts all the basic concepts of Mahāyāna, but also includes a vast array of spiritual and physical techniques designed to enhance Buddhist practice. One component of the Vajrayāna is harnessing psycho-physical energy as a means of developing profoundly powerful states of concentration and awareness. These profound states are in turn to be used as an efficient path to Buddhahood. Using these techniques, it is claimed that a practitioner can achieve Buddhahood in one lifetime, or even as little as three years. In addition to the Mahāyāna scriptures, Vajrayāna Buddhists recognise a large body of Buddhist Tantras, some of which are also included in Chinese and Japanese collections of Buddhist literature, and versions of a few even in the Pali Canon.

Buddhism today

Buddhism had become virtually extinct in India, and although it continued to exist in surrounding countries, its influence was no longer expanding. It is now again gaining strength. While estimates of the number of Buddhist followers range from 230 to 500 million worldwide, most estimates are in the region of 350 million. Most scholars classify similar numbers of people under a category they call variously Chinese (folk/traditional) religion, which is an amalgam of various traditions, including Buddhism. Furthermore, estimates are totally uncertain and in dispute:

  • because of difficulties in defining who counts as a Buddhist;
  • because of adherents of Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto and traditional religions or Shamanism, animism often have beliefs comprised of a mix of religious ideas;
  • because of it was difficult to estimate accurately the number of Buddhists because they did not have congregational memberships and often did not participate in public ceremonies;
  • because of uncertainties in the situation for several countries; most notably China, Vietnam and North Korea.

According to one analysis, Buddhism is the fourth-largest religion in the world behind Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. The monks' order ( Sangha), which began during the lifetime of the Buddha in India, is among the oldest organizations on earth.

Typical interior of a temple in Korea
Typical interior of a temple in Korea
  • Theravāda Buddhism, using Pāli as its scriptural language, is the dominant form of Buddhism in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Burma. Also the Dalit Buddhist movement in India (inspired by B. R. Ambedkar) practices Theravada.
  • East Asian forms of Mahayana Buddhism that use scriptures in Chinese are dominant in most of China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam as well as within Chinese and Japanese communities within Indochina, Southeast Asia and the West.
  • Tibetan Buddhism, using the Tibetan language, is found in Tibet, and the surrounding areas in India, Bhutan, Mongolia, Nepal, and the Russian Federation.
  • Most Buddhist groups in the West are at least nominally affiliated to some eastern tradition listed above. An exception is the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, though they can be considered Mahayanist in a broad sense.

According to a website specializing in religious statistics, the numbers of adherents of the three main traditions listed above are about 124, 185 and 20 million, respectively.

At the present time, the teachings of all three branches of Buddhism have spread throughout the world, and Buddhist texts are increasingly translated into local languages. While, in the West, Buddhism is often seen as exotic and progressive, in the East, Buddhism is regarded as familiar and part of the establishment. Buddhists in Asia are frequently well organized and well funded. In a number of countries, it is recognized as an official religion and receives state support. In the West, Buddhism is recognized as one of the growing spiritual influences. (See also: Buddhism in the West)

Main Beliefs

Other teachings can be found in the sections above on history of Indian Buddhism and the main traditions, and also in separate articles on Buddhist devotion, Nichiren Buddhism, Shingon. (Also, Falun Gong is classified sometimes as a form of Buddhism, sometimes as a form of Chinese religion).

In Theravada Buddhism, any person who has awakened from the "sleep of ignorance" (by directly realizing the true nature of reality), without instruction, and who has reached the end of the compulsive cycle of rebirths (as human, animal, ghost, etc.) after numerous lifetimes of spiritual striving, and who teaches this Path to Awakening to others is called a Buddha, while those who achieve realisations but do not teach others are called paccekabuddhas. All traditional Buddhists agree that Shakyamuni or Gotama Buddha was not the only Buddha: it is generally taught that there have been many past Buddhas and that there will be future Buddhas too. If a person achieves this awakening, he or she is called an arahant. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, is thus only one among other buddhas before or after him. His teachings are oriented toward the attainment of this kind of awakening, also called liberation, or Nirvana.

One of the teachings ascribed to the Buddha regarding the holy life and the goal of liberation is constituted by the "The Four Noble Truths", which focus on dukkha, a term that refers to suffering or the unhappiness ultimately characteristic of unawakened, worldly life. According to the interpretation of earlier Western scholars, followed by many modern Theravadins, the Four Noble Truths regarding suffering state what is its nature, its cause, its cessation, and the way leading to its cessation. This way to the cessation of suffering is called "The Noble Eightfold Path". However, according to at least some recent scholars, the so-called truths are not statements at all, but "things": suffering and the rest.

Numerous distinct groups have developed since the passing of the Buddha, with diverse teachings that vary widely in practice, philosophical emphasis, and culture. Few valid generalizations are possible about all Buddhists.

Bodhi

Gautama Buddha, ancient region  of Gandhara, northern Pakistan, 1st century CE, Musée Guimet, Paris.
Gautama Buddha, ancient region of Gandhara, northern Pakistan, 1st century CE, Musée Guimet, Paris.

Bodhi ( Pāli and Sanskrit (बॊधि), lit. awakening) is a term applied in Theravada Buddhism to the experience of Awakening of Arahants, including Buddhas. When used in a generic sense, a buddha is generally considered to be a person who discovers the true nature of reality through (lifetimes of) spiritual cultivation, investigation of the various religious practices of his time, and meditation. This transformational discovery is called Bodhi, which literally means "awakening", but is more commonly called "enlightenment".

In Early Buddhism, Bodhi carries a meaning synonymous to Nirvana, using only some different similies to describe the experience, which implied the extinction of raga (greed), dosa (hate) and moha (delusion). In the later school of Mahayana Buddhism, the status of nirvana was downgraded, coming to refer only to the extinction of greed and hate, implying that delusion was still present in one who attained Nirvana, and that one needed the additional and higher attainment of Bodhi to eradicate delusion. The result is that according to Mahayana Buddhism, the Arahant attains Nirvana but not Bodhi, thus still being subject to delusion, while the Buddha attains Bodhi. In Theravada Buddhism, Bodhi and Nirvana carry the same meaning, that of being freed from craving, hate and delusion. The Arahant, according to Theravada doctrine, has thus overcome greed, hatred, and delusion, attaining Bodhi. In Theravada Buddhism, the extinction of only greed (in relation to the sense sphere) and hatred, while a residue of delusion remains, is called Anagami.

Bodhi is attained when the Four Noble Truths are fully grasped, and all karma has reached cessation. Although the earliest sources do not have any mention of Paramitas, the later traditions of Theravada and Mahayana state that one also needs to fulfill the pāramitās. After attainment of Bodhi, it is believed one is freed from the compulsive cycle of saṃsāra: birth, suffering, death and rebirth, and attains the "highest happiness" (Nirvana, as described in the Dhammapada). Belief in self ( ātmān, Pāli attā) has also been extinguished as part of the eradication of delusion, and Bodhi thus implies understanding of anattā (Sanskrit: Anatman).

Some Mahayana sources contain the idea that a bodhisattva, which in other Mahayana sources is someone on the path to Buddhahood, deliberately refrains from becoming a Buddha in order to help others.

According to a saying in one of the Mahayana sutras, if a person does not aim for Bodhi, one lives one's life like a preoccupied child playing with toys in a house that is burning to the ground.

Middle Way

An important guiding principle of Buddhist practice is the Middle Way which was said to have been discovered by the Buddha prior to his enlightenment ( bodhi). The Middle Way or Middle Path has several definitions:

  1. It is often described as the practice of non-extremism; a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and opposing self-mortification.
  2. It also refers to taking a middle ground between certain metaphysical views, e.g. that things ultimately either exist or do not exist.
  3. An explanation of the state of nirvana and perfect enlightenment where all dualities fuse and cease to exist as separate entities (see Seongcheol).

Refuge in the Three Jewels

Footprint of the Buddha with Dharmachakra and triratna, 1st century CE, Gandhāra.
Footprint of the Buddha with Dharmachakra and triratna, 1st century CE, Gandhāra.

Traditionally, the first step in most forms of Buddhism requires taking refuge, as the foundation of one's religious practice, in Buddhism's Three Jewels (Sanskrit: त्रिरत्न Triratna or रत्नत्रय Ratna-traya, Pali: Tiratana). The practice of taking refuge on behalf of young or even unborn children is mentioned in the Majjhima Nikaya, recognized by most scholars as an early text (cf Infant baptism). Tibetan Buddhism sometimes adds a fourth refuge, in the lama. The person who chooses the bodhisattva path makes a vow/pledge. This is considered the ultimate expression of compassion in Buddhism.

The Three Jewels are:

  • The Buddha (i.e.,Awakened One). This is a title for those who attained Awakening similar to the Buddha and helped others to attain it. See also the Tathāgata and Śākyamuni Buddha. The Buddha could also be represented as the wisdom that understands Dharma, and in this regard the Buddha represents the perfect wisdom that sees reality in its true form.
  • The Dharma: The teachings or law as expounded by the Buddha. Dharma also means the law of nature based on behaviour of a person and its consequences to be experienced (action and reaction). It can also (especially in Mahayana Buddhism) connote the ultimate and sustaining Reality which is inseverable from the Buddha.
  • The Sangha: This term literally means "group" or "congregation," but when it is used in Buddhist teaching the word refers to one of two very specific kinds of groups: either the community of Buddhist monastics (bhikkhus and bhikkhunis), or the community of people who have attained at least the first stage of Awakening (Sotapanna ( pali)—one who has entered the stream to enlightenment). According to some modern Buddhists, it also consists of laymen and laywomen, the caretakers of the monks, those who have accepted parts of the monastic code but who have not been ordained as monks or nuns.

According to the scriptures, The Buddha presented himself as a model, however, he did not ask his followers simply to have faith (Sanskrit श्रद्धा śraddhā, Pāli saddhā) in his example of a human who escaped the pain and danger of existence. In addition, he encouraged them to put his teachings to the test and accept what they could verify on their own, provided that this was also "praised by the wise" (see Kalama Sutta). The Dharma, i.e. the teaching of the Buddha, offers a refuge by providing guidelines for the alleviation of suffering and the attainment of enlightenment. The Saṅgha (Buddhist Order of monks) is considered to provide a refuge by preserving the authentic teachings of the Buddha and providing further examples that the truth of the Buddha's teachings is attainable.

In the Mahayana, the Buddha tends not to be viewed as merely human, but as the earthly projection of a beginningless and endless, omnipresent being (see Dharmakaya) beyond the range and reach of thought. Moreover, in certain Mahayana sutras, the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are viewed essentially as One: all three are seen as the eternal Buddha himself.

Many Buddhists believe that there is no otherworldly salvation from one's karma. The suffering caused by the karmic effects of previous thoughts, words and deeds can be alleviated by following the Noble Eightfold Path, although the Buddha of some Mahayana sutras, such as the Lotus Sutra, the Angulimaliya Sutra and the Nirvana Sutra, also teaches that powerful sutras such as the above-named can, through the very act of their being heard or recited, wholly expunge great swathes of negative karma.

The Four Noble Truths

According to the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2004), these are

  1. "the noble truth that is suffering"
  2. "the noble truth that is the arising of suffering"
  3. "the noble truth that is the end of suffering"
  4. "the noble truth that is the way leading to the end of suffering"

According to the scriptures, the Four Noble Truths were among the topics of the first sermon given by the Buddha after his enlightenment, which was given to the five ascetics with whom he had practised austerities. The Four Noble Truths were originally spoken by the Buddha not in the form of a religious or philosophical text, but in the manner of a medical diagnosis and remedial prescription in a style that was common at that time. The early teaching and the traditional understanding in the Theravada is that these are an advanced teaching for those who are ready for them. The Mahayana position is that they are a preliminary teaching for people not yet ready for the higher and more expansive Mahayana teachings. They are little known in the Far East.

The Noble Eightfold Path

The eight-spoked Dharmacakra. The eight spokes represent the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism.
The eight-spoked Dharmacakra. The eight spokes represent the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism.

The Noble Eightfold Path is the way to the cessation of suffering, the fourth part of the Four Noble Truths. In the early sources (the four main Nikayas) it is not generally taught to laymen, and it is little known in the Far East. This is divided into three sections: Śīla (which concerns wholesome physical actions), Samadhi (which concerns the meditative concentration of the mind) and Prajñā (which concerns spiritual insight into the true nature of all things).

Śīla is morality—abstaining from unwholesome deeds of body and speech. Within the division of sila are three parts of the Noble Eightfold Path:

  1. Right Speech—One speaks in a non hurtful, not exaggerated, truthful way (samyag-vāc, sammā-vācā)
  2. Right Actions—Wholesome action, avoiding action that would do harm (samyak-karmānta, sammā-kammanta)
  3. Right Livelihood—One's way of livelihood does not harm in any way oneself or others; directly or indirectly (samyag-ājīva, sammā-ājīva)

Samadhi is developing mastery over one’s own mind. Within this division are another three parts of the Noble Eightfold Path:

  1. Right Effort/Exercise—One makes an effort to improve (samyag-vyāyāma, sammā-vāyāma)
  2. Right Mindfulness/Awareness—Mental ability to see things for what they are with clear consciousness (samyak-smṛti, sammā-sati)
  3. Right Concentration/Meditation—Being aware of the present reality within oneself, without any craving or aversion. (samyak-samādhi, sammā-samādhi)

Prajñā is the wisdom which purifies the mind. Within this division fall two more parts of the Noble Eightfold Path:

  1. Right Understanding—Understanding reality as it is, not just as it appears to be. (samyag-dṛṣṭi, sammā-diṭṭhi)
  2. Right Thoughts—Change in the pattern of thinking. (samyak-saṃkalpa, sammā-saṅkappa)

The word samyak means "perfect". There are a number of ways to interpret the Eightfold Path. On one hand, the Eightfold Path is spoken of as being a progressive series of stages through which the practitioner moves, the culmination of one leading to the beginning of another, whereas others see the states of the 'Path' as requiring simultaneous development. It is also common to categorize the Eightfold Path into prajñā (Pāli paññā, wisdom), śīla (Pāli sīla, virtuous behaviour) and samādhi (concentration).

Śīla: (Moral cultivation and the precepts)

Śīla (Sanskrit) or sīla ( Pāli) is usually translated into English as "virtuous behaviour", "morality", "ethics" or "precept". It is an action committed through the body, speech, or mind, and involves an intentional effort. It is one of the three practices (sila, samadhi, and panya) and the second pāramitā. It refers to moral purity of thought, word, and deed. The four conditions of śīla are chastity, calmness, quiet, and extinguishment.

Śīla is the foundation of Samadhi/Bhāvana (Meditative cultivation) or mind cultivation. Keeping the precepts promotes not only the peace of mind of the cultivator, which is internally, but also peace in the community, which is externally. According to the Law of Kamma, keeping the precepts are meritorious and it acts as causes which would bring about peaceful and happy effects. Keeping these precepts keeps the cultivator from rebirth in the four woeful realms of existence.

Śīla refers to overall (principles of) ethical behaviour. There are several levels of sila, which correspond to 'basic morality' ( five precepts), 'basic morality with asceticism' ( eight precepts), 'novice monkhood' ( ten precepts) and 'monkhood' (Vinaya or Patimokkha). Lay people generally undertake to live by the five precepts which are common to all Buddhist schools. If they wish, they can choose to undertake the eight precepts, which have some additional precepts of basic asceticism.

The five precepts are not given in the form of commands such as "thou shalt not ...", but are training rules in order to live a better life in which one is happy, without worries, and can meditate well.

1. To refrain from taking life. (non-violence towards sentient life forms)
2. To refrain from taking that which is not given. (not committing theft)
3. To refrain from sensual (sexual) misconduct.
4. To refrain from lying. (speaking truth always)
5. To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness. (refrain from using drugs or alcohol)

In the eight precepts, the third precept on sexual misconduct is made more strict, and becomes a precept of celibacy.

The three additional rules of the eight precepts are:

6. To refrain from eating at the wrong time. (only eat from sunrise to noon)
7. To refrain from dancing, using jewelry, going to shows, etc.
8. To refrain from using a high, luxurious bed.

Vinaya is the specific moral code for monks and nuns. It includes the Patimokkha, a set of 227 rules for monks in the Theravadin recension. The precise content of the vinayapitaka (scriptures on Vinaya) differ slightly according to different schools, and different schools or subschools set different standards for the degree of adherence to Vinaya. Novice-monks use the ten precepts, which are the basic precepts for monastics.

In Eastern Buddhism, there is also a distinctive Vinaya and ethics contained within the Mahayana Brahmajala Sutra (not to be confused with the Pali text of that name) for Bodhisattvas, where, for example, the eating of meat is frowned upon and vegetarianism is actively encouraged (see vegetarianism in Buddhism). In Japan, this has almost completely displaced the monastic vinaya, and allows clergy to marry.

Samādhi/Bhāvanā (Meditative cultivation)

In the language of the Noble Eightfold Path, samyaksamādhi is "right concentration". The primary means of cultivating samādhi is meditation. According to Theravada Buddhism the Buddha taught two types of meditation, viz. samatha meditation (Sanskrit: śamatha) and vipassanā meditation (Sanskrit: vipaśyanā). In Chinese Buddhism, these exist (translated chih kuan), but Chan (Zen) meditation is more popular. Throughout most of Buddhist history before modern times, serious meditation by lay people has been unusual. Upon development of samādhi, one's mind becomes purified of defilement, calm, tranquil, and luminous.

Once the meditator achieves a strong and powerful concentration ( jhāna, Sanskrit ध्यान dhyāna), his mind is ready to penetrate and gain insight ( vipassanā) into the ultimate nature of reality, eventually obtaining release from all suffering. The cultivation of mindfulness is essential to mental concentration, which is needed to achieve insight.

Samatha Meditation starts from being mindful of an object or idea, which is expanded to one's body, mind and entire surroundings, leading to a state of total concentration and tranquility (jhāna) There are many variations in the style of meditation, from sitting cross-legged or kneeling to chanting or walking. The most common method of meditation is to concentrate on one's breath, because this practice can lead to both samatha and vipassana.

In Buddhist practice, it is said that while samatha meditation can calm the mind, only vipassanā meditation can reveal how the mind was disturbed to start with, which is what leads to jñāna (Pāli ñāṇa knowledge), prajñā (Pāli paññā pure understanding) and thus can lead to nirvāṇa (Pāli nibbāna). When one is in jñāna, all defilements are suppressed temporarily. Only prajñā or vipassana eradicates the defilements completely. Jhanas are also resting states which arahants abide in order to rest.

Prajñā (Wisdom)

Prajñā (Sanskrit) or paññā ( Pāli) means wisdom that is based on a realization of dependent origination, The Four Noble Truths and the three marks of existence. Prajñā is the wisdom that is able to extinguish afflictions and bring about bodhi. It is spoken of as the principal means, by its enlightenment, of attaining nirvāṇa, through its revelation of the true nature of all things as dukkha (unsatisfactory), anicca (impermanence) and anatta (devoid of self). Prajñā is also listed as the sixth of the six pāramitās of the Mahayana.

Initially, prajñā is attained at a conceptual level by means of listening to sermons (dharma talks), reading, studying and sometimes reciting Buddhist texts and engaging in discourse.

Once the conceptual understanding is attained, it is applied to daily life so that each Buddhist can verify the truth of the Buddha's teaching at a practical level. It should be noted that one could theoretically attain nirvana at any point of practice, while listening to a sermon, while conducting business of daily life or while in meditation.

Buddhism and intellectualism

According to the scriptures, in his lifetime, the Buddha refused to answer several metaphysical questions. On issues such as whether the world is eternal or non-eternal, finite or infinite, unity or separation of the body and the self, complete inexistence of a person after nirvana and then death etc, the Buddha had remained silent. One explanation for this is that such questions distract from practical activity for realizing enlightenment. Another is that such questions assume the reality of world/self/person.

In the Pali Canon and numerous Mahayana sutras and Tantras, the Buddha stresses that Dharma (Truth) cannot truly be understood with the ordinary rational mind or logic: Reality transcends all worldly concepts. The "prajna-paramita" sutras have this as one of their major themes. What is urged is study, mental and moral self-cultivation, faith in and veneration of the sutras, which are as fingers pointing to the moon of Truth, but then to let go of ratiocination and to experience direct entry into Liberation itself.

The Buddha in the self-styled "Uttara-Tantra", the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (a Mahayana scripture), insists that, while pondering upon Dharma is vital, one must then relinquish fixation on words and letters, as these are utterly divorced from Liberation and the Buddha. The Tantra entitled the "All-Creating King" ( Kunjed Gyalpo Tantra, a scripture of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism) also emphasises how Buddhist Truth lies beyond the range of thought and is ultimately mysterious. The Supreme Buddha, Samantabhadra, states there: "The mind of perfect purity ... is beyond thinking and inexplicable ...." Also later, the famous Indian Buddhist yogi and teacher mahasiddha Tilopa discouraged any intellectual activity in his 6 words of advice.

Most Buddhists agree that, to a greater or lesser extent, words are inadequate to describe the goal; schools differ radically on the usefulness of words in the path to that goal.

Buddhist scholars have produced a prodigious quantity of intellectual theories, philosophies and world view concepts. See e.g. Abhidharma, Buddhist philosophy and Reality in Buddhism. Some schools of Buddhism discourage doctrinal study, but most regard it as having a place, at least for some people at some stages.

Mahayana often adopts a pragmatic concept of truth: doctrines are "true" in the sense of being spiritually beneficial. In modern Chinese Buddhism, all doctrinal traditions are regarded as equally valid.

Divisions

The most frequently used classification of present-day Buddhism among scholars divides present-day adherents into the following three traditions or geographical or cultural areas: Theravada, East Asian Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism.

An alternative scheme used by some scholars has two divisions, Theravada and Mahayana. In this classification, Mahayana includes both East Asian and Tibetan Buddhism. This scheme is the one ordinarily used in the English language. Some scholars use other schemes. Buddhists themselves have a variety of other schemes.

Buddhist texts

Pali Canon

    Vinaya Pitaka    
   
                                       
Sutta-
vibhanga
Khandhaka Pari-
vara
               
   
    Sutta Pitaka    
   
                                                      
Digha
Nikaya
Majjhima
Nikaya
Samyutta
Nikaya
                     
   
   
                                                                     
Anguttara
Nikaya
Khuddaka
Nikaya
                           
   
    Abhidhamma Pitaka    
   
                                                           
Dhs. Vbh. Dhk.
Pug.
Kvu. Yamaka Patthana
                       
   
         

Buddhist scriptures and other texts exist in great variety. Different schools of Buddhism place varying levels of value on learning the various texts. Some schools venerate certain texts as religious objects in themselves, while others take a more scholastic approach. The Buddhist canons of scripture are known in Sanskrit as the Tripitaka and in Pāli as the Tipitaka. These terms literally mean "three baskets" and refer to the three main divisions of the canon, which are:

  • The Vinaya Pitaka, containing disciplinary rules for the Sanghas of Buddhist monks and nuns, as well as a range of other texts including explanations of why and how rules were instituted, supporting material, and doctrinal clarification.
  • The Sūtra Pitaka (Pāli: Sutta Pitaka), contains discourses ascribed to the Buddha.
  • The Abhidharma Pitaka (Pāli Abhidhamma Pitaka) contains material often described as systematic expositions of the Buddha's teachings.

According to the scriptures, soon after the death of the Buddha, the first Buddhist council was held; a monk named Mahākāśyapa (Pāli: Mahākassapa) presided. The goal of the council was to record the Buddha's sayings— sūtras (Sanskrit) or suttas (Pāli)—and codify monastic rules (Vinaya). Ānanda, the Buddha's personal attendant, was called upon to recite the discourses of the Buddha, and according to some sources the abhidhamma, and Upāli, another disciple, recited the rules of the Vinaya. These became the basis of the Tripitaka. However, this record was initially transmitted orally in form of chanting, and was committed to text in a much later period. Both the sūtras and the Vinaya of every Buddhist school contain a wide variety of elements including discourses on the Dharma, commentaries on other teachings, cosmological and cosmogonical texts, stories of the Buddha's previous lives, and lists relating to various subjects.

The Theravāda and other early Buddhist Schools traditionally believe that the texts of their canon contain the actual words of the Buddha. The Theravāda canon, also known as the Pāli Canon after the language it was written in, contains some four million words. Other texts, such as the Mahāyāna sūtras, are also considered by some to be the word of the Buddha, but supposedly were transmitted in secret, or via lineages of mythical beings (such as the nāgas), or came directly from other Buddhas or bodhisattvas. Approximately six hundred Mahāyāna sutras have survived in Sanskrit or in Chinese or Tibetan translations. In addition, East Asian Buddhism recognizes some sutras regarded by scholars as of Chinese origin.

The followers of Theravāda Buddhism take the scriptures known as the Pāli Canon as definitive and authoritative, while the followers of Mahāyāna Buddhism base their faith and philosophy primarily on the Mahāyāna sūtras and their own versions of the Vinaya. The Pāli sutras, along with other, closely-related scriptures, are known to the other schools as the āgamas.

Whereas the Theravādins adhere solely to the Pali canon and its commentaries, the adherents of Mahāyāna accept both the agamas and the Mahāyāna sūtras as authentic, valid teachings of the Buddha, designed for different types of persons and different levels of spiritual penetration. For the Theravādins, however, the Mahayana sūtras are works of poetic fiction, not the words of the Buddha himself. The Theravadins are confident that the Pali canon represents the full and final statement by the Buddha of his Dhamma—and nothing more is truly needed beyond that. Anything added which claims to be the word of the Buddha and yet is not found in the Canon or its commentaries is treated with extreme caution if not outright rejection by Theravada.

Buddhist monk Geshe Konchog Wangdu reads Mahayana sutras from an old woodblock copy of the Tibetan Kanjur.
Buddhist monk Geshe Konchog Wangdu reads Mahayana sutras from an old woodblock copy of the Tibetan Kanjur.

For the Mahāyānists, in contrast, the āgamas do indeed contain basic, foundational, and, therefore, relatively weighty pronouncements of the Buddha. From the Mahayana standpoint the Mahāyāna sutras articulate the Buddha's higher, more advanced and deeper doctrines, reserved for those who follow the bodhisattva path. That path is explained as being built upon the motivation to liberate all living beings from unhappiness. Hence the name Mahāyāna (lit., the Great Vehicle), which expresses availability both to the general masses of sentient beings and those who are more developed. The theme of greatness can be seen in many elements of Mahayana Buddhism, from the length of some of the Mahayana sutras and the vastness of the Bodhisattva vow, which strives for all future time to help free all other persons and creatures from pain), to the (in some sutras and Tantras) final attainment of the Buddha's "Great Self" (mahatman) in the sphere of "Great Nirvana" (mahanirvana). For Theravadins and many scholars, including A.K. Warder, however, the self-proclaimed "greatness" of the Mahayana Sutras does not make them a true account of the life and teachings of Gautama Buddha.

Unlike many religions, Buddhism has no single central text that is universally referred to by all traditions. However, some scholars have referred to the Vinaya Pitaka and the first four Nikayas of the Sutta Pitaka as the common core of all Buddhist traditions. However, this could be considered misleading, as Mahāyāna considers these merely a preliminary, and not a core, teaching, the Tibetan Buddhists have not even translated most of the āgamas, though theoretically they recognize them, and they play no part in the religious life of either clergy or laity in China and Japan. The size and complexity of the Buddhist canons have been seen by some (including Buddhist social reformer Babasaheb Ambedkar) as presenting barriers to the wider understanding of Buddhist philosophy.

Over the years, various attempts have been made to synthesize a single Buddhist text that can encompass all of the major principles of Buddhism. In the Theravada tradition, condensed 'study texts' were created that combined popular or influential scriptures into single volumes that could be studied by novice monks. Later in Sri Lanka, the Dhammapada was championed as a unifying scripture.

Dwight Goddard collected a sample of Buddhist scriptures, with the emphasis on Zen, along with other classics of Eastern philosophy, such as the Tao Te Ching, into his ' Buddhist Bible' in the 1920s. More recently, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar attempted to create a single, combined document of Buddhist principles in "The Buddha and His Dhamma". Other such efforts have persisted to present day, but currently there is no single text that represents all Buddhist traditions.

Buddhist symbols

The eight auspicious symbols of Mahayana and Vajrayana are:

  • the Conch Shell
  • the Dharma wheel
  • the Endless Knot
  • the Golden Fish
  • the Lotus flower
  • the Treasure Vase
  • the Parasol (Umbrella)
  • the Victory Banner

Comparative study

Buddhism is a fertile ground for comparative studies with different beliefs, philosophy, science, history, and various other aspects of Buddhism. In term of doctrine, dependent origination is, according to some, Buddhism's primary contribution to metaphysics. This has wide-ranging implication in terms of theology, philosophy, and science. On the other hand, Buddhist emphasis on the Middle way not only provides a unique guideline for ethics but it has also allowed Buddhism to peacefully coexist with various local beliefs, customs, and institutions in adopted countries for most of its history.

List of Buddhism related topics in comparative studies

  • Buddhism and Christianity
  • Buddhism and Eastern teaching (Buddhism and East Asian teaching)
  • Buddhism and Hinduism
  • Buddhism and Jainism* God in Buddhism (Buddhism, mysticism, and monotheism)
  • Buddhism and psychology
  • Buddhism and science (Buddhism and science)
  • Buddhist Ethics (Buddhism and ethics)
  • Buddhist philosophy (Buddhism and Western philosophy)
  • Buddhism and Thelema

Suggested reading

  • Armstrong, Karen (2001). Buddha. Penguin Books, 187. ISBN 0-14-303436-7. 
  • Buswell, Robert E. (ed.) (2003). Encyclopedia of Buddhism. MacMillan Reference Books. ISBN 978-0028657189. 
  • Coogan, Michael D. (ed.) (2003). The Illustrated Guide to World Religions. Oxford University Press. ISBN 1-84483-125-6. 
  • Dhammananda, K. Sri, What Buddhists Believe. [ Buddhist Missionary Society of Malaysia]. (2002)
  • Donath, Dorothy C. (1971). Buddhism for the West: Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna; a comprehensive review of Buddhist history, philosophy, and teachings from the time of the Buddha to the present day. Julian Press. ISBN 0-07-017533-0. 
  • Gunaratana, Bhante Henepola (2002). Mindfulness in Plain English. Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-321-4.  Also available on-line:
  • Juergensmeyer, Mark (2006). The Oxford Handbook of Global Religions, Oxford Handbooks in Religion and Theology. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195137989. 
  • Lowenstein, Tom (1996). The Vision of the Buddha. Duncan Baird Publishers. ISBN 1-903296-91-9. 
  • Kohn, Michael H. (trans.) (1991). The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Shambhala. ISBN 0-87773-520-4. 
  • Morgan, Kenneth W. (ed), The Path of the Buddha: Buddhism Interpreted by Buddhists, Ronald Press, New York, 1956; reprinted by Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi; distibuted by Wisdom Books
  • Nattier, Jan (2003). A Few Good Men: The Bodhisattva Path according to The Inquiry of Ugra (Ugrapariprccha). University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 0-8248-2607-8. 
  • Robinson, Richard H., and Johnson, Willard L. (1982). The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction. Wadsworth Publishing. ISBN 0-534-01027-X. 
  • Sinha, H.P. (1993). Bhāratīya Darshan kī rūprekhā (Features of Indian Philosophy). Motilal Banarasidas Publ.. ISBN 81-208-2144-0. 
  • Smith, Huston; Phillip Novak (2003). Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. HarperSanFrancisco. ISBN 978-0060730673. 
  • Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2001). Refuge: An Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma, & Sangha (3rd ed., rev.). 
  • Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, Broadway Books, 1974. ISBN 0-7679-0369-2.
  • Thurman, Robert A. F. (translator) (1976). Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: Mahayana Scripture. Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 0-271-00601-3. 
  • Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press, 1974. ISBN 0-8021-3031-3.
  • White, Kenneth, The Role of Bodhicitta in Buddhist Enlightenment Including a Translation into English of Bodhicitta-sastra, Benkemmitsu-nikyoron, and Sammaya-kaijo, The Edwin Mellen Press, 2005. ISBN 0-7734-5985-5.
  • Yamamoto, Kosho (translation), revised and edited by Dr. Tony Page. The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra. (Nirvana Publications 1999-2000). 
  • Yin Shun, Yeung H. Wing (translator), The Way to Buddhahood: Instructions from a Modern Chinese Master, Wisdom Publications, 1998. ISBN 0-86171-133-5.
  • Wei, Wei Wu, "Why Lazarus Laughed: The Essential Doctrine Zen-Advaita-Tantra", Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., London, 1960.
  • Bibliotheca Indo Buddhica Series/ Delhi/ Indian Books Centre
  • Jewels of the Doctrine (Buddhist Stories of the Thirteenth Century)/ Ranjini/ Sri Satguru Publications

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