This document contains a brief historical
overview of Buddhism, the life of Siddhartha Gautama, a description of
Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism, a description of basic beliefs and an
outline of Buddhism in today's world.
Buddhism: The Religion of Peaceful, Ethical Self-culture
Buddhism began in India in the sixth century B. C. as a reform movement
in Hinduism. It was the first religion of the world to become international
and today (1982) has a membership of 254,867,450. The founder of Buddhism
was Siddhartha Gautama, the son of a rich ruler of the Kshatriya caste.
There are legends of his non-human conception, supernatural birth, and
of his future greatness prophesied by a Hindu saint. Gautama married at
the age of nineteen and later had a son. He lived a luxurious and sheltered
life but while riding outside the royal compound he saw a decrepit old
man, a diseased man, a corpse, and an ascetic monk. He became obsessed
with the fact that all must face age, sickness, and death and he determined
to find an answer to this anxiety and suffering.
Leaving his wife, son, family, and inheritance Gautama clipped his hair
and beard, exchanged clothes with a beggar and began his quest. For years
he tried to solve the problem of suffering first through philosophy and
then by extreme asceticism but found no inner peace.
Finally, around the age of thirty-five he sat down under the shade of
a fig or bo tree to meditate; he determined to meditate until he received
enlightenment. After seven weeks he received the Great Enlightenment; The
Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path. Henceforth he became known as
the Buddha (enlightened one). This Middle Way is a psychological-philosophical
insight into the cause and cure of suffering and evil.
The First Noble Truth points out that the human condition is steeped
in suffering, that in some way life has become estranged from reality.
The Second Noble Truth tells us the cause of life's dislocation. Anxiety
and suffering are caused by indulging in inherently insatiable desires.
All forms of selfishness tend to separate us from others, life, and reality.
The Third Noble Truth states a logical conclusion: suffering will cease
when we suppress, overcome, and master these cravings and desires. We must
develop non attachment to the things of the world. The Fourth Noble Truth
tells us how this cure is accomplished--by following the Noble Eight-fold
Buddha's analysis of the problems of life in the Four Noble Truths is
essentially that of a therapist; and the Eight-fold Path is the course
of treatment through training. First one needs to have right knowledge
in order to have the facts, principles, and values to establish a wise
life plan. Second, right aspirations are required to give power to this
plan. The heart as well as the head must be dedicated to our goals. Third,
right speech is needed to take hold of what is in our consciousness which
controls our thinking. We need to change our speech and thinking toward
truth and charity. Fourth, right behavior should be initiated to further
change and control our lives. We must follow the Five Precepts: do not
kill, steal, lie, be unchaste, or drink intoxicants. Fifth, we should engage
in a right livelihood. Spiritual progress is difficult if one's occupation
pulls in the opposite direction. One should not take work which weakens
or destroys life but serve in those occupations that promote life. Sixth,
right effort is needed to keep us growing in spiritual attainment. Buddha
laid great stress on the importance of the will in determining our destiny.
He had more confidence in the long steady pull than in quick spurts of
activity. Seventh,, we need right mindfulness to sustain our growth. Few
teachers have equaled Buddha's emphasis on the mind as the shaper and determiner
of the course of human life. The Damma-pada opens with the words, "All
we are is the result of what we have thought." We should wisely control
our state of consciousness. Eighth, right contemplation and absorption
finally brings the aspirant into a transmutation of consciousness which
transcends the worldly preoccupation with things, desires, and suffering.
Those who have followed the eight-fold path and arrived at the point of
achieving Nirvana are called arhat, or "saint."
Gautama Buddha taught a way of life devoid of authority, ritual, speculation,
tradition, and the supernatural. He stressed intense self-effort. His last
words before he died at the age of eighty were, "Work out your own
salvation with diligence." Gautama accepted the law of karma and reincarnation.
He saw Nirvana not as a state of extinction or annihilation but as "the
highest destiny of the human spirit." It is so totally different that
it is "incomprehensible, indescribably, inconceivable, unutterable...bliss."
Buddha did not believe in the existence of a personal God; nor did he
believe that man had a soul. He tended to deny the existence of substance
of every kind and saw the transitoriness of all finite things and beings;
he stressed impermanence. Man's life after achieving Nirvana is unfathomable
- "reborn does not belong to him nor not-born, or any combination
of such terms." some scholars have pointed out that Buddhism in its
earliest form was not a religion but a system of psychological-ethical
discipline based on a pessimistic philosophy of life. Although there is
some truth in this evaluation, there is much that is positive in Buddha's
The scripture of Buddhism is the Tripitaka (Three Baskets of Wisdom),
made up of the Vinaya Pitaka (Discipline Basket), the Sutta Pitaka (Teaching
Basket), and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (Higher Doctrine Basket). Parts of the
Tripitaka such as the Dhamma-pada and the Sutta-Nipata are among the most
expressive religious books in the world. Some of Buddha's parables are
very similar to those used by Jesus.
Buddhism has been divided into two major branches which have in turn
been subdivided into numerous sects. Today one may find in this one family
of religions nearly every form of religious belief and expression on the
Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle) or Theravada Buddhism concentrated in Southeast
Asia is conservative and more closely follows the original teachings of
Buddha. It sees man as entirely dependent on self-effort, teaches wisdom
as the key virtue and regards religion as a full-time job, primarily for
monks. They regard Buddha as a saint, eschew metaphysics and ritual, and
limit prayer to meditation. Their ideal is arhat (sainthood).
Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) Buddhism has spread throughout the world
and rests on the principle that Buddha taught many things in secret to
the elect who could properly interpret them. It sees man as involved with
others and saved by grace. It teaches compassion as the key virtue and
believes its religion is relevant to life in the world; therefore, it is
a religion for laymen as well as monks. The Mahayana branch sees Buddha
as a savior, welcomes metaphysics and ritual, and engages in petitionary
prayer. Their ideal is the Bodhisattva--a mortal who has achieved enlightenment
and after death postpones Nirvana attainment to serve in heaven answering
prayers and helping mortals who are in need. Mahayana Buddhism regards
Buddha as a divine savior--pre-existent, planfully incarnate, supernaturally
conceived, miraculously born, sinless, with a redemptive purpose, all knowing,
and everlasting. Buddha has been made a member of the Buddhist Trinity.
Buddhism received its greatest impetus from the Indian emperor, Asoka,
who was converted in 297 B. C. and became convinced that Buddhism was a
religion for all of the peoples of the world. Accordingly, he sent missionaries
throughout the known world. Asoka also called the third council of Buddhism
in 247 B. C. for the purpose of determining the true canon of Buddhist
The main branches of Mahayana Buddhism are the Pure Land Sect, the Intuitive
Sects, the Rationalist Sects, the Sociopolitical Sects, and the Tibetan
Sect. The Pure Land Sect seeks to achieve salvation and life after death
in the "pure land of Western Paradise." They believe in Dhyani
Buddhas who are lesser deities who help human beings. Their priests may
marry and their worship practices parallel the church and Sunday school
services of Christianity.
The Intuitive Sects such as Ch'an and Zen emphasize that the truths
of religion do not come through rational thought processes but through
a sudden flash of insight. They believe the externals of religion are unnecessary.
Reason is to be distrusted more than anything else; therefore riddles and
various techniques of irrationality are used to confuse reason and trigger
an intuitive flash. Zen is so concerned with the limitations of language
and reason that it makes their transcendence the central intent of its
method. Experience, not words are important. So they sit hour after hour,
day after day, year after year seeking to develop their intuitive powers.
The Rationalist Sects believe that in addition to meditation one should
utilize reason and a study of the scriptures in order to find the truth.
All approaches to enlightenment may be useful at times but in reality there
is only one true Buddhist teaching and one must study the scriptures of
Buddhism in order to know this truth. The Chih-i sect in China and the
Tendai sect in Japan stress the importance of the rational approach.
The Sociopolitical Sects such as the Japanese Nichiren sect have had
great effect on the social and political dynamics of various nations. The
founder of Nichiren thought that all of the sects of Buddhism were a perversion
of the true teachings of Buddha and were leading peoples to hell. He came
to believe the only scripture one needed to study was the Lotus Sutra.
Nichiren teaches a simplified form of Buddhism and uncompromising patriotism.
Tibetan Buddhism is representative of sects that emphasize the use of
magic words or formulae to achieve various goals. Tibetan people traditionally
have used incantations, spells, and magic to protect themselves from demons.
Tibetan monks or lamas invented the prayer wheel to augment their defenses
against evil. By the 14th century monastery leaders became more powerful
than kings and for all practical purposes the country was ruled by Buddhist
priests. The lamas of Tibetan Buddhism have been divided into two orders,
the Red Hats and the Yellow Hats. The leader of the larger Yellow Hat group
is known as the Dalai Lama who was virtually ruler of Tibet. China in 1950
set up a puppet government in Tibet and when the Dalai Lama attempted to
overthrow Chinese rule in 1959 the rebellion was crushed. The Dalai Lama
and a few of his followers escaped to India.
During the twentieth century Buddhism is experiencing a revival. This
new awakening may have been augmented by Christian missionaries who translated
the ancient Buddhist texts and made them available for all to study and
by the rise of Asian nationalism. Buddhism today is once more a missionary
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