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Encyclopedia > Buddhists
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Statues of Buddha such as this, the Tian Tan Buddha statue in Hong Kong, remind followers to practice right living.

Buddhism is a religion and philosophy based on the teachings of the Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama (Sanskrit; in Pāli, Siddhattha Gotama), who lived between approximately 563 and 483 BCE. Originating in India, Buddhism gradually spread throughout Asia to Central Asia, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, as well as the East Asian countries of China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan.


The aim of buddhist practices is to become free of suffering (dukkha). Some schools emphasize awakening the practitioner to the realization of anatta (egolessness, the absence of a permanent or substantial self) and achieve enlightenment and Nirvana. Other Buddhist scriptures (the "Tathagatagarbha" sutras) encourage the practitioner to cleanse him/herself of the mental and moral defilements of the "worldly self" and thereby penetrate through to a perception of the indwelling "Buddha-Principle" ("Buddha-nature"), also termed the "True Self" (see "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra"), and thus become transformed into a Buddha. Some other schools appeal to bodhisattvas for a favourable rebirth. Some others do none of these things. Most, if not all, Buddhist schools also teach followers to perform good and wholesome actions, to avoid bad and harmful actions. There can be very large differences between different Buddhist schools of thought.


Buddhist morality is underpinned by the principles of harmlessness and moderation. Mental training focuses on moral discipline (sila), meditative concentration (samadhi), and wisdom (prajñā).


Buddhism, per se, neither confirms nor denies the existence of the supernatural (gods, heavens, hells, etc.). Some Buddhist schools do employ deities and celestial protectors in their practices, but these are generally considered to be emanations of the meditator's own mind and thus not fundamentally real.



Buddhism
Terms and concepts
History
People
Schools and sects
Texts
Temples
Culture
Buddhism by country
Timeline
List of topics


Contents

What is a Buddha?

Indian languages Pāli and Sanskrit which means "one who has become awake". It is derived from the verbal root "√budh", meaning "to awaken or be enlightend."


The word "Buddha" denotes not just a single religious teacher who lived in a particular epoch, but a type of person, of which there have been many instances in the course of cosmic time. (As an analogy, the term "American President" refers not just to one man, but to everyone who has ever held the office of the American presidency.) The Buddha Siddhartha Gautama, then, is simply one member in the spiritual lineage of Buddhas, which stretches back into the dim recesses of the past and forward into the distant horizons of the future.


Gautama did not claim any divine status for himself, nor did he assert that he was inspired by a god or gods. He claimed to be not a personal saviour, but a teacher to guide those who choose to listen. A Buddha is any human being who has fully awakened to the true nature of existence, whose insight has totally transformed him or her beyond birth, death, and subsequent rebirth, and who is enabled to help others achieve the same enlightenment.


The principles by which a person can be led to enlightenment are known as the Buddhadharma, or simply the Dharma. Dharma in this sense of the rather complex term means, "law, doctrine, or truth." Anyone can attain what the Buddha attained regardless of age, gender, or caste. Indeed, Buddhists believe there have been many solitary buddhas (Pāli pacceka-buddha; Sanskrit: pratyekabuddha) who achieved enlightenment on their own but did not go on to teach others. According to one of the stories in the Sutta Nipāta, the Buddha, too, was afraid to teach humans because he despaired of their limited capacity for understanding. The Vedic (early Hindu) god Indra, however, interceded, and requested that he teach despite this. That the historical Buddha did so is thus a mark of special compassion.


Origins

Legend has it that the Buddha to be, Siddhārtha Gautama, was born around the 6th century BCE. His birthplace is said to be Lumbini in the kingdom of Nepal. His father was a king, and Siddhārtha lived in luxury, being spared all hardship.

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This engraving depicts the Buddha's first sermon, which according to the Dhammacakka Pavattana Sutta took place in the Deer Park at Sarnath in northern India.

The legends say that a seer predicted that Siddhartha would become either a great king or a great holy man; because of this, the king tried to make sure that Siddhartha never had any cause for dissatisfaction with his life, as that might drive him toward a spiritual path. Nevertheless, at the age of 29, while being escorted by his attendant Channa, he came across what has become known as the Four Passing Sights: an old crippled man, a sick man, a decaying corpse, and finally a wandering holy man. These four sights, as they are called, led him to the realization that birth, old age, sickness and death came to everyone, not only once but repeated for life after life in succession for uncounted aeons. He decided to abandon his worldly life, leaving behind his wife and child, his privilege, rank, caste, and to take up the life of a wandering holy man in search of the answer to the problem of birth, old age, sickness, and death. It is said that he stole out of the house in the dead of night, pausing for one last look at his family, and did not return there for a very long time.


Indian holy men (sādhus), in those days just as today, engaged in a variety of ascetic practices designed to "mortify" the flesh. It was thought that by enduring pain and suffering, the ātman (Sanskrit; Pāli: atta) or "soul" became free from the round of rebirth into pain and sorrow. Siddhārtha proved adept at these practices, and was able to surpass his teachers. However, he found no answer to his problem and, leaving behind his teachers, he and a small group of companions set out to take their austerities even further. He became a skeleton covered with skin, surviving on a single grain of rice per day, and practiced holding his breath. After nearly starving himself to death with no success (some sources claim that he nearly drowned), Siddhārtha began to reconsider his path. Then he remembered a moment in childhood in which he had been watching his father start the season's plowing, and he had fallen into a naturally concentrated and focused state in which time seemed to stand still, and which was blissful and refreshing. Perhaps this would provide an alternative to the dead end of self-mortification?


Taking a little buttermilk from a passing goatherd, he found a large tree (now called the Bodhi tree) under which he would be shaded from the heat of the mid_summer sun, and set to meditating. This new way of practicing began to bear fruit. His mind became concentrated and pure, and then, six years after he began his quest, he attained Enlightenment, and became a Buddha.


Historically speaking, there are questions about this story. First, there are other narrative versions of his life that do not exactly match - one has it that the Buddha leaves home in the "prime of his youth", his parents weeping and wailing all the while. Second, we know from other sources that the country of Magadha, where he was born, was an oligarchic republic at that time, so there was no royal family of which to speak. However, regardless of the details of his early life, the evidence strongly indicates that the Buddha was indeed a historical person living in approximately the same time and place in which he is traditionally placed.


It has also been advanced that the pervasive influence of Jain culture and philosophy in ancient Bihar gave rise to Buddhism.


The Buddhists always maintained that by the time Buddha and Mahavira were alive, Jainism was already an ancient and deeply entrenched faith and culture in the region. Buddhist scriptures record philosophical dialogues between the wandering seeker Buddha and Jain teachers such as Udaka Ramaputta. Early Buddhists posited the existence of 24 previous Buddhas (Buddhas who walked the earth prior to Gautama Siddhartha) many of whose names are identical to those of the 24 Jain Tirthankaras and other traditional Jain figures. Buddhist scriptures attest that many of the first Buddhists were in fact Jains (Nirgranthas as they were then called, meaning "the unbonded ones"), whom Buddha encouraged to maintain their Jain identity and practices such as giving alms to Jain monks and nuns. The famous ancient parable of the blind men and the elephant illustrates the Jain science of Anekantavada, and is found in the Buddhist Pali text called Udana. Like most splinter groups generally, writers of the Pali texts clearly rejoiced in criticizing (and at times ridiculing) the Jains and celebrating the conversion of another Jain to Buddha's path. The texts show that Buddha vigorously appealed to the Nirgranthas that his path was nothing different from that with which they were already familiar, simply better.


The Buddhist formulation of the "Middle Way" was a post_Buddha response by the Buddhist monastic community to criticism by the Jains (as seen in Jain texts such as the Sutrakritanga Sutra and Acharanga Sutra) that the Buddhist Bhikkhus (mendicants) were lax and not living the rigorous life of a true ascetic or Shramana (Samana in Prakrit). In defining the Middle Way, Buddhist scholars branded their faith with a unique identity that distanced itself from Jain tradition by providing an alternative to "extreme asceticism" (i.e., Jainism) on one hand and Buddha's own princely hedonism on the other. In describing Buddha's six_years of spiritual searching after leaving his family, Buddhist scriptures from the early post_Buddha period detail certain fasts, penances and austerities which Buddha undertook whose descriptions are elsewhere found only in the Jain tradition (for example, the penance by five fires and the consumption of food using only one's cupped hands). To this day, many Buddhist teachings, principles and terms remain identical to Jain ones. In short, a large body of evidence suggests that Buddhism is, in large measure, an offshoot of Jainism.


The Jain teacher Mahāvīra was a senior contemporary of the Buddha, however there is no evidence the two teachers actually met.


(Note: If counterevidence exists to any of the above, it is requested that it be appended to the end.)


See also: Earliest Buddhism


Principles of Buddhism

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Buddhists praying at the temple Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, near Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The Three Jewels

Buddhists seek refuge in what are often referred to as the Three Jewels, Triple Gem or Triple Jewel. These are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the "noble" (Sanskrit: arya) Sangha or community of monks and nuns who have become enlightened. While it is impossible to escape one's karma or the effects caused by previous thoughts, words and deeds, it is possible to avoid the suffering that comes from it by becoming enlightened. In this way, dharma offers a refuge. Dharma, used in the sense of the Buddha's teachings, provides a raft and is thus a temporary refuge while entering and crossing the river. However, the real refuge is on the other side of the river.


To one who is seeking to become enlightened, taking refuge constitutes a continuing commitment to pursuing enlightenment and following in the footsteps of the people who have followed the path to enlightenment before. It contains an element of confidence that enlightenment is in fact a refuge, a supreme resort. Many Buddhists take the refuges each day, sometimes more than once in order to remind themselves of what they are doing and to direct their resolve inwardly towards liberation.


In most-- if not all-- forms of Buddhism, the Three Jewels are taken before the Sangha for the first time, as a part of the conversion ritual.


Although Buddhists concur that taking refuge should be undertaken with proper motivation (complete liberation) and an understanding of the objects of refuge, the Indian scholar Atisha identified that in practice there are many different motives found for taking refuge. His idea was to use these differing motivations as a key to resolving any apparent conflicts between all the Buddha's teachings without depending upon some form of syncresis that would cause as much confusion as it attempted to alleviate.


It is extremely important to note that in Buddhism, the word "refuge" should not be taken in the English sense of "hiding" or "escape;" instead, many scholars have said, it ought be thought of as a homecoming, or place of healing, much as a parent's home might be a refuge for someone. This simple misunderstanding has led some Western scholars to conclude that Buddhism is "a religion for sticking one's head in the sand," when most Buddhists would assert quite the opposite.


In the 11th century, Lamp for the Path by Atisha, and in the subsequent Lamrim tradition as elaborated by Tsongkhapa, the several motives for refuge are enumerated as follows, typically introduced using the concept of the "scope" (level of motivation) of a practitioner:

  • Worldly scope is taking refuge to improve the lot of this life
  • Low scope is taking refuge to gain high rebirth and avoid the low realms
  • Middle scope is taking refuge to achieve Nirvana
  • High scope is taking refuge to achieve Buddhahood
  • Highest scope is also sometimes included, which is taking refuge to achieve Buddhahood in this life.

See also: Three Jewels


The Four Noble Truths

The Buddha taught that life was dissatisfactory because of craving, but that this condition was curable by following the eightfold path. This teaching is called the four noble truths:

  1. Dukkha: All worldly life is unsatisfactory, disjointed, containing suffering.
  2. Samudaya: There is a cause of suffering, which is attachment or desire (tanha) rooted in ignorance.
  3. Nirodha: There is an end of suffering, which is Nirvana.
  4. Marga: There is a path that leads out of suffering, known as the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Noble Eightfold Path

Main article: Noble Eightfold Path

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

In order to fully understand the noble truths and investigate whether they were in fact true, Buddha recommended that a certain lifestyle or path be followed which consists of:

  1. Right Understanding
  2. Right Thought
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

Sometimes in the Pāli Canon the Eightfold Path is spoken of as being a progressive series of stages which the practitioner moves through, the culmination of one leading to the beginning of another, but it is more usual to view the stages of the 'Path' as requiring simultaneous development.


The Eightfold Path essentially consists of meditation, following the precepts, and cultivating the positive converse of the precepts (e.g. benefiting living beings is the converse of the first precept of harmlessness). The Path may also be thought of as a the way of developing śīla, meaning mental and moral discipline.


The Five Precepts

Buddhists undertake certain precepts as aids on the path to coming into contact with ultimate reality. Laypeople generally undertake five precepts. The five precepts are:

  1. I undertake the precept to refrain from harming living creatures (killing).
  2. I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not freely given (stealing).
  3. I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.
  4. I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech (lying, harsh language, slander, idle chit-chat).
  5. I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness.

In some schools of Buddhism, serious lay people or aspiring monks take an additional three to five ethical precepts, and some of the five precepts are strengthened. For example, the precept pertaining to sexual misconduct becomes a precept of celibacy; the fourth precept, which pertains to incorrect speech, is expanded to four: lying, harsh language, slander, and idle chit_chat. Monks and nuns in most countries also vow to follow the 227 patimokkha rules.


See also: Pancasila


The three marks of conditioned existence

According to the Buddhist tradition all phenomena (dharmas) are marked by three characteristics, sometimes referred to as the Dharma Seals:

  • Anatta (Pāli; Sanskrit: anātman): In Indian philosophy, the concept of a self is called ātman (that is, "soul" or metaphysical self), which refers to an unchanging, permanent essence conceived by virtue of existence. This concept and the related concept of Brahman, the Vedantic monistic ideal, which was regarded as an ultimate ātman for all beings, were indispensable for mainstream Indian metaphysics, logic, and science; for all apparent things there had to be an underlying and persistent reality, akin to a Platonic form. The Buddha rejected all concepts of ātman, emphasizing not permanence but changeability. He taught that all concepts of a substantial self were incorrect and formed in the realm of ignorance.

According to some thinkers both in the East and the West, this may imply that Buddhism is a form of nihilism or something similar. However, as thinkers like Nagarjuna have pointed out, Buddhism is not simply a rejection of the concept of existence (or of meaning, etc.) but of the hard and fast distinction between existence and nonexistence, or rather between being and nothingness. Buddhism thus has more in common with Western empiricism, pragmatism, and anti_foundationalism than it does with nihilism per se.

  • Anicca (Pāli; Sanskrit: anitya): All things and experiences are inconstant, unsteady, and impermanent. Everything is made up of parts, and is dependent on the right conditions for its existence. Everything is in flux, and so conditions are constantly changing. Things are constantly coming into being, and ceasing to be. Nothing lasts.
  • Dukkha (Pāli; Sanskrit: duḥkha): because we fail to truly grasp the first two conditions, we suffer. We desire a lasting satisfaction, but look for it amongst constantly changing phenomena. We perceive a self, and act to enhance that self by pursuing pleasure, and seek to prolong pleasure when it too is fleeting.

It is by realizing (not merely understanding intellectually, but making real in one's experience) the three marks of conditioned existence that one develops Prajñā, which is the antidote to the ignorance that lies at the root of all suffering.


See also: three marks of existence


Other principles and practices

  • Meditation or dhyāna of some form is a common practice in most if not all schools of Buddhism, for the clergy if not the laity.
  • Central to Buddhist doctrine and practice is the law of karma and vipaka; action and its fruition, which happens within the dynamic of dependent origination (pratītya-samutpāda). Actions which result in positive retribution (happiness) are defined as skillful or good, while actions that produce negative results (suffering) are called unskillful or bad actions. These actions are expressed by the way of mind, body or speech. Some actions bring instant retribution while the results of other actions may not appear until a future lifetime. Most teachers are, however, quick to point out that though it may be a result of someone's past-life karma that they suffer, this should not be used as an excuse to treat them poorly; indeed, all should help them and help to alleviate their suffering, leading to them working to alleviate their own suffering.
  • Rebirth, which is closely related to the law of karma. An action in this life may not give fruit or reaction until the next life time. This being said, action in a past life takes effect in this one, making a chain of existence. The full realization of the absence of an eternal self or soul (the doctrine of anatta (Pāli; Sanskrit: anātman)) breaks this cycle of birth and death (samsara).

Vegetarianism

The first lay precept in Buddhism prohibits killing. Many see this as implying that Buddhists should not eat the meat of animals. However, this is not necessarily the case. The Buddha made distinction between killing an animal and consumption of meat, stressing that it is immoral conduct that makes one impure, not the food one eats. Monks in ancient India were expected to receive all of their food by begging and to have little or no control over their diet. During the Buddha's time, there was no general rule requiring monks to refrain from eating meat. In fact, at one point the Buddha specifically refused to institute vegetarianism and the Pali Canon records the Buddha himself eating meat on several occasions. There were, however, rules prohibiting certain types of meat, such as human, leopard or elephant meat. Monks are also prohibited from consuming meat if the monk witnessed the animal's death or knows that it was killed specifically for him. This rule was applied to commercial purchase of meat in the case of a general who sent a servant to purchase meat specifically to feed the Buddha. Therefore, eating commercially purchased meat is not prohibited.


On the other hand, certain Mahayana sutras make a stronger argument against eating meat. In the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha states that "the eating of meat extinguishes the seed of great compassion", adding that all and every kind of meat and fish consumption (even of animals already found dead) is prohibited by him. The Buddha also predicts in this sutra that later monks will "hold spurious writings to be the authentic Dharma" and will concoct their own sutras and mendaciously claim that the Buddha allows the eating of meat, whereas in fact (he says) he does not. A long passage in the Lankavatara Sutra shows the Buddha weighing strongly in favor of vegetarianism, since the eating of the flesh of fellow sentient beings is said by him to be incompatible with the compassion which a Bodhisattva should strive to cultivate. Several other Mahayana sutras also emphatically prohibit the consumption of meat.


In the modern world, attitudes toward vegetarianism vary by location. In the Theravada countries of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, monks are bound by the vinaya to accept almost any food that is offered to them, often including meat, while in China and Vietnam, monks are expected to eat no meat. In Japan and Korea, some monks practice vegetarianism, and most will do so at least when training at a monastery, but otherwise they typically do eat meat. In Tibet, where vegetable nutrition was historically very scarce, and the adopted vinaya was the Nikaya Sarvāstivāda, vegetarianism is very rare, although the Dalai Lama has recently made several comments encouraging its adoption. In the West, of course, a wide variety of practices are followed. Lay Buddhists generally follow dietary rules less rigorously than monks.


The three main branches of Buddhism

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A statue of the Buddha, Aomori, Japan.

Buddhism has evolved into myriad schools that can be roughly grouped into three types: Nikaya, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Of the Nikaya schools, only the Theravada survives. Each branch sees itself as representing a true, original teachings of the Buddha, and some schools believe that the dialectic nature of Buddhism allows its format, terminology, and techniques to adapt over time in response to changing circumstances, thus validating dharmic approaches different from their own.


The Theravada school, whose name means "Doctrine of the Elders", bases its practice and doctrine exclusively on the Pali Canon. This is considered to be the oldest of the surviving Buddhist canons, and its sutras are accepted as authentic in every branch of Buddhism. Theravada is the only surviving representative of the historical Nikaya branch. Nikaya Buddhism and consequently Theravada are sometimes referred to as Hinayana or "lesser vehicle", although this is considered by some to be impolite. Native Theravada is practiced today in Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and portions of Vietnam and Malaysia.


The Mahāyāna, or exoteric branch, literally means "Great Vehicle" and emphasizes universal compassion and the selfless ideal of the bodhisattva. In addition to the Nikaya scriptures, Mahāyāna schools recognize all or part of a genre of scriptures that were first put in writing around 1 CE. These later scriptures were written in Sanskrit and are concerned with the purpose of achieving Buddhahood by following the path of the bodhisattva over the course of what is often described as countless eons of time. Because of this immense timeframe, many Mahāyāna schools accept the idea of working towards rebirth in a Pure Land, which is not enlightenment in itself but which is a highly conducive environment for working toward enlightenment. Native Mahāyāna Buddhism is practiced today in China, Japan, Korea, and most of Vietnam.


The Vajrayāna or "Diamond Vehicle" (also referred to as Mantrayana, Tantrayana, Tantric or esoteric Buddhism) shares many of the basic concepts of Mahāyāna, but also includes a vast array of spiritual 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 as little as three years. In addition to the Theravada and Mahāyāna scriptures, Vajrayāna Buddhists recognise a large body of texts that include the Buddhist Tantras. Native Vajrayana is practiced today mainly in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, Kalmykia, areas of India, and, to a limited extent, in China and Japan.


At the present time the teachings of all three branches of Buddhism have spread throughout the world and are now easily available in the developed countries, and increasingly translated into the local language.


Buddhism after the Buddha

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One of the first representations of the Buddha, 1st-2nd century CE, Gandhara.

Buddhism spread slowly in India until the powerful Mauryan emperor Asoka converted to it and actively supported it. His promotion led to construction of Buddhist religious sites and missionary efforts that spread the faith into the countries listed at the beginning of the article.


After about 500 CE, Buddhism showed signs of waning in India, becoming nearly extinct after about 1200 CE. This was partially due to Muslim invasions and partially due to Hinduism's revival movements such as Advaita and the rise of the bhakti movement.


Elements of Buddhism have remained within India to the current day: the Bauls of Bengal have a syncretic set of practices with strong emphasis on many Buddhist tantric and philosophic concepts. Other areas of India have never parted from Buddhism, including Ladakh and other areas bordering the Tibetan, Nepali and Bhutanese borders.


Buddhism also remained in the rest of the world although in Central Asia and later Indonesia it was mostly replaced by Islam. In China and Japan, it adopted aspects of the native beliefs of Confucianism, Taoism and Shinto respectively. In Tibet, the Tantric Vajrayana lineage was preserved after it disappeared in India.


History of the schools

Three months after the passing of Gautama Buddha, The First Council was held at Rajagaha by his immediate disciples who had attained Arahantship (Enlightenment). Maha Kassapa, the most respected and elderly monk, presided at the Council. Only two sections the Dhamma and the Vinaya were recited at the First Council. All Arahants unanimously agree that no disciplinary rule laid down by the Buddha should be changed, and no new ones should be introduced. At this point, no conflict about what the Buddha taught is known to have occurred, so the teachings were divided into various parts and each was assigned to an elder and his pupils to commit to memory. These groups of people often cross-checked with each other to ensure that no omissions or additions were made.


At the Second Council, one hundred years later, it was not the dharma that was called into question but the monks' code of rules or vinaya. This resulted in the formation of the Sthaviravādin and Mahāsanghika schools. Opinions differ on the cause of the split: the Sthaviravādins described their opponents as lax monks who had ceased to follow all the vinaya rules, while the Mahāsanghikas argued that the Buddha had never intended a rigid adherence to all the minor rules. After this initial division, more were to follow. Schism in early Buddhism was typically not on points of doctrine (orthodoxy), but in the area of practice (orthopraxy). So if two schools shared a vinaya, but were in dispute over doctrinal matters, it was likely that they would continue to practice together. However, if one group disputed the vinaya of another, this would often prevent common practice.


In the 3rd century BCE the Third Council was convened under the patronage of Emperor Ashoka, primarily for the purpose of establishing an official orthodoxy. At the council, small groups raised questions about the specifics of the vinaya and the interpretation of doctrine. The chairman of the council, Moggaliputta Tissa, compiled a book called the Kathavatthu, which was meant to refute these arguments. The council sided with Moggaliputta and his version of Buddhism as orthodox; it was then adopted by Emperor Ashoka as his empire's official religion. This school of thought was termed Vibhajjavada (Pali), literally "Teaching of Analysis". The version of the scriptures that had been established at the Third Council, including the vinaya, sutta and the abhidhamma commentaries (collectively known as Tripitaka), was taken to Sri Lanka by Emperor Ashoka's son, the Venerable Mahinda. There it was eventually committed to writing in the Pali language. The Pali Canon remains the only complete set of Nikaya scriptures to survive, although fragments of other versions exist.


Between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE, the terms Mahayana and Hinayana were first used in writing, in, for example, the Lotus Sutra.


The Fourth Council was convened by the Kushan emperor Kanishka, around 100 CE at Jalandhar or in Kashmir, and is usually associated with the formal rise of Mahayana Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism does not recognize the authenticity of this council, and it is sometimes called the “council of heretical monks”.


It is said that Kanishka gathered 500 Bhikkhus, headed by Vasumitra, to edit the Tripitaka and make references and remarks. A set of new scriptures were approved, as well as fundamental principles of Mahayana doctrine. The new scriptures, usually in the Gandhari vernacular and the Kharosthi script, were rewritten in the classical language of Sanskrit, to many scholars a turning point in the propagation of Buddhist thought.


During and after the 2nd century, versions of the Mahayana vision became clearly defined in the works of Nagarjuna, Asanga, Shantideva, Ashvagosha, and Vasubandhu.

A painting depicting a Central Asian Tocharian monk (left) along with a Chinese monk (right). The painting is from the 9th or 10th century in the Tarim Basin.

Around the 1st century, Buddhism spread from India through successive waves of merchants and pilgrims. It reached as far as Arabia to the west, and eastward to southeast Asia, where the first records of Buddhism date from around 400. Mahayana Buddhism established a major regional center in what is today Afghanistan, and from there it spread to China, Korea, Mongolia, and Japan. In 475, the Indian monk Bodhidharma travelled to China and established the Chan (Chinese; Japanese: Zen), school. During the first millennium, monks from China such as Yijing and Xuanzang made pilgrimages to India.


At one time, different Turkic and Tocharian groups along the northern fringe of East Turkestan (modern Xinjiang in western China) adhered to Nikaya Buddhism. However, Buddhism there was supplanted by the introduction of Islam around 1000.


Vajrayana also evolved at this stage carried from India to Tibet around 800 by teachers such as Padmasambhava and Atisha. There it initially coexisted with native belief systems such as Bön, but later came to largely supplant or absorb them. An early form of esoteric Vajrayana known as Shingon was also transmitted by the priest Kūkai to Japan, where it continues to be practiced.


There is still an active debate as to whether or not Tantrism was initially developed within Buddhism or Hinduism. Buddhist literature tends to predate the later puranic Tantras, and there is some evidence to suggest that the basic structure of tantra depends upon the Mahayana Buddhist philosophical schools. However, it is thought by others that meditative Shiva sects seem to have existed from pre-Vedic times; also, from scriptural citations and study of the Vedas, some say Tantra saw its philosophical basis in the mystical rites and mantras of the Atharva Veda (and later the Hindu Upanishads and Mahayana school of Buddhism).


See also: History of Buddhism and Timeline of Buddhism


Scriptures

The Buddhist canon of scripture is known in Sanskrit as the Tripiṭaka and in Pāli as the Tipiṭaka. These terms literally mean "three baskets" and refers to the three main divisions of the canon, which are:

Young Buddhist monks in Tibet
  • The Vināya Piṭaka, containing disciplinary rules for the Sāṅgha of Buddhist monks and nuns, as well as a range of other texts which explain why and how rules were instituted, supporting material, and doctrinal clarification.
  • The Sutta Piṭaka (Pāli; Sanskrit: Sutra Piṭaka), containing discourses of the Buddha.
  • The Abhidhamma or commentary Piṭaka, containing a philosophical systematization of the Buddha's teaching, including a detailed analysis of Buddhist psychology.

During the first few centuries after Gautama Buddha, his teachings were transmitted orally, but around the 1st Century CE they began to be written down. A given school of Buddhism will generally have its own distinctive canon of texts, which will partially overlap with those of other schools. The most notable set of texts from the early period is the Pali Canon, which was preserved in Sri Lanka by the Theravāda school. The sutras it contains are also part of the canon of every other Buddhist sect. Full versions of the original text[1] (http://jbe.gold.ac.uk/palicanon.html) and partial English translations[2] (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/canon/) are now readily available on the internet.


The appearance of the Mahāyāna tradition brought with it a collection of new texts, composed in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, many of which were also described as actual sermons of the Buddha. These include the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, the Avataṃsaka, the Lotus Sutra, the Vimalakīrti Sutra, and the ṇirvana Sutra. Many of the Mahayana sutras were translated into Tibetan and classical Chinese and are also now read in the West.


The Mahāyāna canon further expanded after Buddhism was transmitted to China, where the existing texts were translated, and new texts were composed for the purpose of adapting the Indian tradition to the East Asian philosophical mindset. Many of these works are considered by modern scholars to be spurious. Other new texts, such as the Platform Sutra and the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment did not pretend to be of Indian origin, but were widely accepted as valid scriptures on their own merits. Later writings include the Linji Lu of Chan master Linji. In the course of the development of Korean Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism, further important texts were composed. These included, for example, in Korea, some of the writings of Jinul, and in Japan, works such as Dogen's Shobogenzo.


Arguably the most thorough compilation of Mahayana sutras is found in the Tibetan canon. This is split into those texts attributed to be authored by the Buddha (Kanjur), and those texts which are understood to be commentaries by Indian practitioners (Tenjur). Vajrayāna practitioners also study distinctive texts such as the Buddhist tantras.


Recently an important archaeological discovery was made, consisting of the earliest known Buddhist manuscripts, recovered from somewhere near ancient Gandhara in northwest Pakistan. These fragments, written on birch bark, are dated to the 1st century an


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