Buddhism, like any other spiritual thought system, is such an extensive subject that we would not pretend to be able to offer complete information on it here. Therefore, as an introduction, we will limit ourselves to a short academic history of Buddhism, and a description of the major "schools" within Buddhism, and offer you links to some more in-depth information elsewhere, should you choose to pursue it.
We believe that this introduction will be sufficient background for anyone to understand where some of the other Buddhist information we will offer comes from, and truly that is our only aim.
Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: it transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural & spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity. - Albert Einstein
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Reaction and Intellectual Revolution
From the seventh to the fifth centuries BC, India witnessed the most creative intellectual period in its history. It was a time of immense innovation and intellectual ferment equal to similar periods in Greece from the sixth to the fifth centuries BC, and in China from the sixth to the second centuries BC. However, Indian philosophers and religious sages were reacting to the increasingly restrictive and empty formalism of Vedic sacrifices and rituals. The priestly classes had become the most powerful class in ancient India, theoretically placed above kings and nobles. For the priests controlled the forces of the universe through the power inherent in their hymns, charms, and elaborate rituals.
Against this ritualistic focus and concentration of social power, a small revolution occurred in the development of intellectual Hinduism. Admitting that the rituals might have some relative value, these thinkers focused instead on the inspiration contained in the hymns that formed the backbone of Hinduism. Their teachings, called the Upanishadic after the central form of their dissemination, the Upanishads, were largely secret teachings and their religious focus was on the ability of human beings to understand the mysteries of the universe and their own relationship to the divine. They introduced several new elements into Vedic thought: the doctrine of transmigration, that is, that the soul goes from life to life; the unity of the human soul with the universal soul, or Atman; the doctrine that self-discovery is also the discovery of the one god; and finally, a focus on spirituality rather than material reality. The most important of these innovations, however, was the doctrine of transmigration. Attached to endless return of the soul was a moral order of the universe, rita; the type of life and the type of moral disposition each soul is born into is determined by the nature and quality of its actions in previous lives. Moral actions take on a larger pattern in the infinite life of the soul. Not only did the Upanishadic thinkers introduce the notion of samsara , but they also began to discuss how the soul might be released from this cycle: this is called moksha, or "liberation."
Although the teachers of the Upanishads were heterodox thinkers, they still at some level admitted that Hindu tradition and rituals had some effectiveness. But the reaction against orthodox Hinduism would breed even more radical rebellions, particularly in northern India in the states of Brihar and Uttar Pradesh. We don't know precisely why this region spawned such dynamic intellectual revolt against the prevailing religion. Perhaps it was because these regions had only recently been settled by the Aryans, those Indo-Europeans that brought Vedic religion and rituals to India. Perhaps it was because the class system so vital to Vedism and to the Aryans was only loosely structured. Perhaps it was because the political system involved only a very loose confederacy.
From an intellectual standpoint, the doctrine of transmigration, which was introduced by the Upanishadic teachers, was the focal point of the heterodox, in fact, heretical religious movements of northern India. For the two most radical challenges to Vedism, Buddhism and Jainism, centered their entire philosophy around this single doctrine. The heretical schools of Vedism, Buddhists and Jainists, all had as the central goal the release of the soul from this infinite cycle of birth and rebirth, or samsara. So the idea that the soul passes from life to life infinitely was the intellectual crucible in which Buddhism was forged. The mainstream reaction to these new ways of thinking were to classify them as "non-Vedic" or heresies; the formal term was nastika darsanas, or "atheists" (as opposed to "Vedic" philosophies, astika darsanas, or "believers").
Buddhism and Jainism, however, did not appear overnight; there was a natural evolution leading up to them. The Buddhists acknowledge that there were six heretical schools that preceded them. Like Buddhism and Jainism, these heretical schools focused entirely on the problem of transmigration. The most important of these heretics was Ajita Kesakambala who founded the "materialist" school, or Cakvara. He believed that the soul was only a material phenomenon, a temporary co-location of matter in a living body. When the body died, the temporary collection of matter dissolved, and with it dissolved the soul. This meant that the soul was never punished for evil nor was it ever rewarded for good.
Aside from Buddhism, the most important school to arise in this period was Jainism. Unlike the other heretical schools, Jainism has survived to the present day as a major religion in India; unlike Buddhism, however, it has not spread much outside of India. The great teacher of Jainism, Vardhamana Mahavira, lived at the same time as Siddhartha Guatama, the founder of Buddhism. It appears to Western historians that Jainism actually begins with Vardhamana, although the Jains believe that the religion is far older, extending in fact to the remotest antiquity. Mahavira, they believe, was the twenty-fourth and last of the teachers. He was born in 599 BC, the son of a daughter of the king of Vaisali. At the age of thirty, he learned the ephemeral nature of the world and devoted himself to an ascetic lifestyle. Over a period of twelve years, he suffered the most self-denying hardships until he finally reached enlightenment and began to teach others.
Jainism is based on a single idea, that the transmigration of souls is caused by the union of the living with the non-living which then sets up energies, or tapas , which then drive the cycle of birth and rebirth. This endless process can be stopped if the energies are used up in a life of discipline. At the end of the process, the soul, freed from the cycle of birth and rebirth, then exists in a state of infinite bliss, knowledge, power, and perception—the soul which has achieved this state is siddha-paramesthin . There is a slightly lower stage of the soul, called the arhat-paramesthin , and the arhat is the one who teaches the rest of humanity. This teacher is called the tirthankara , or "ford crosser," and serves as a vehicle of revelation for the rest of humanity. Like the Islamic rasul , each tirthankara is more or less a founder of a new religion.
The Jains believe that the world was uncreated and lasts for eternity; the only quality that reality has is the fact of change. Things are born, they decay, the pass away. Each physical object is held together by its own internal forces. In the face of this constant change only a few things remain permanent; of these, the most important is jiva , or the soul. The jiva can do two things: it can perceive and it can know. It also controls its own actions when it is part of a concrete body; so also it enjoys all the rewards and punishments of its own actions. There are four categories of souls: gods, humans, demons, and animals; each soul in the infinite cycle of birth and rebirth can enter any of these categories. Moksha occurs only when the soul becomes freed from the cycle of birth and rebirth.
The path to moksha, moksha-marga , is the central teaching of Jainism. This path has three "jewels": right belief, right knowledge, and right conduct. This path involves a high degree of asceticism; quite literally the best lived life is one of total asceticism: no food or material involvement at all. Since this is an impossible idea, Mahavira developed a second path for normal human beings to follow. This involved five abstinences: ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (abstinence from stealing), brahmacarya (chaste living), and aparigraha (abstinence from greed). This, perhaps, is the most important aspect of Jainism. It is overwhelmingly a moral religion. It promises an eventual release if an individual begins now, in this life, to live under a high moral code.
These are then two of the major nastika darsanas , the materialism of the Ajita Kesakambalin and the moral religion of Vardhamana Mahavira. The third, and the most influential, was founded by a prince of the Shakyas at the foot of the Himalayans: Buddhism.
The Historical Siddhartha (Buddha)
The other major challenge to orthodox Vedism was founded by the son of a chief of a region called the Shakyas. This region lay among the foothills of the Himalayas in the farthest northern regions of the plains of India. This founder, Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, has many legends and stories that have accreted around his life. While we can't be certain which of these stories and legends are true and which of the thousands of sayings attributed to him were actually said by him, we do know that the basic historical outlines of his life are accurate.
He was the chief's son of a tribal group, the Shakyas, so he was born a Kshatriya around 566 BC. At the age of twenty-nine, he left his family in order to lead an ascetic life. A few years later he reappears with a number of followers; he and his followers devote their lives to "The Middle Way," a lifestyle that is midway between a completely ascetic lifestyle and one that is world-devoted. At some point he gained "enlightenment" and began to preach this new philosophy in the region of Bihar and Uttar Kadesh. His teaching lasted for several decades and he perished at a very old age, somewhere in his eighties. Following his death, only a small group of followers continued in his footsteps. Calling themselves bhikkus , or "disciples," they wandered the countryside in yellow robes (in order to indicate their bhakti , or "devotion" to the master). For almost two hundred years, these followers of Buddha were a small, relatively inconsequential group among an infinite variety of Hindu sects. But when the great Mauryan emperor, Asoka, converted to Buddhism in the third century BC, the young, inconsequential religion spread like wildfire throughout India and beyond. Most significantly, the religion was carried across the Indian Ocean (a short distance, actually) to Sri Lanka. The Buddhists of Sri Lanka maintained the original form of Siddhartha's teachings, or at least, they maintained a form that was most similar to the original. While in the rest of India, and later the world, Buddhism fragmented into a million sects, the original form, called Theravada Buddhism, held its ground in Sri Lanka.
That's all we know about the historical life of Siddhartha, his mission, and the fate of his teachings. When we move into the Buddhist histories, the record becomes much more uncertain, particularly since the events of the Buddha's life vary from sect to sect.
What follows, however, is the most common outline of the nature of Siddhartha's life and philosophy. When Siddhartha Gautama was born, a seer predicted that he would either become a great king or he would save humanity. Fearing that his son would not follow in his footsteps, his father raised Siddhartha in a wealthy and pleasure-filled palace in order to shield his son from any experience of human misery or suffering. This, however, was a futile project, and when Siddhartha saw four sights: a sick man, a poor man, a beggar, and a corpse, he was filled with infinite sorrow for the suffering that humanity has to undergo.
After seeing these four things, Siddhartha then dedicated himself to finding a way to end human suffering. He abandoned his former way of life, including his wife and family, and dedicated himself to a life of extreme asceticism. So harsh was this way of life that he grew thin enough that he could feel his hands if he placed one on the small of his back and the other on his stomach. In this state of wretched concentration, in heroic but futile self-denial, he overheard a teacher speaking of music. If the strings on the instrument are set too tight, then the instrument will not play harmoniously. If the strings are set too loose, the instrument will not produce music. Only the middle way, not too tight and not too loose, will produce harmonious music. This chance conversation changed his life overnight. The goal was not to live a completely worldly life, nor was it to live a life in complete denial of the physical body, but to live in a Middle Way. The way out of suffering was through concentration, and since the mind was connected to the body, denying the body would hamper concentration, just as overindulgence would distract one from concentration.
With this insight, Siddhartha began a program of intense yogic meditation beneath a pipal tree in Benares. At the end of this program, in a single night, Siddhartha came to understand all his previous lives and the entirety of the cycle of birth and rebirth, or samsara, and most importantly, figured out how to end the cycle of infinite sorrow. At this point, Siddhartha became the Buddha, or "Awakened One." Instead, however, of passing out of this cycle himself, he returned to the world of humanity in order to teach his new insights and help free humanity of their suffering.
His first teaching took place at the Deer Park in Benares. It was there that he expounded his "Four Noble Truths," which are the foundation of all Buddhist belief:
1.) All human life is suffering (dhukka ).
2.) All suffering is caused by human desire, particularly the desire that impermanent things be permanent.
3.) Human suffering can be ended by ending human desire.
4.) Desire can be ended by following the "Eightfold Noble Path": right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
From a metaphysical standpoint, these Noble Truths make up and derive from a single fundamental Truth (in Sanskrit, Dharma , and in Pali, Dhamma ). The Buddhist Dharma is based on the idea that everything in the universe is causally linked. All things are composite things, that is, they are composed of several elements. Because all things are composite, they are all transitory, for the elements come together and then fall apart. It is this transience that causes human beings to sorrow and to suffer. We live in a body, which is a composite thing, but that body decays, sickens, and eventually dies, though we wish it to do otherwise. Since everything is transient, that means that there can be no eternal soul either in the self or in the universe. This, then, is the eternal truth of the world: everything is transitory, sorrowful, and soulless–the three-fold character of the world.
As pessimistic as this sounds, the philosophy of Siddhartha Gautama is a kind of therapy. In fact, classifying it in Western terms is impossible. We think of Buddhism as a religion, which it unquestionably became, but Siddhartha was less concerned with theology or ritual or prayer as he was with providing a tool for individuals to use to escape suffering. The goal of this method, the Eightfold Noble Path, is the elimination of one's desires and one's attachment to one's self. Once one has understood correctly the nature of the universe (Right Understanding) and devoted one's life to selfless and altruistic actions (Right Action) and, finally, by losing all sense of one's self and by losing all one's desires, one then passes into a state called Nirvana (in Pali, Nibbana ). The word means "snuffed out" in the way a fire is snuffed out or extinguished. At this point, the self no longer exists. It is not folded into a higher reality nor is it transported to a land of bliss, it simply ceases to exist. This is the state that the Buddha passed into at his death.
Like Jainism, then, Buddhism centrally concerns the problem of the eternal birth and rebirth of the human soul. Unlike Jainism, Buddhism in its original form does not posit some transcendent alternative as a goal. In fact, Buddhism in its original form held that the soul actually died when the body died. How, then, could a soul pass from body to body? What passed from body to body was a chain of causes set in motion by each soul; the Buddhist philosopher Nagsena said it was like a flame passing from candle to candle. The individual, in snuffing out the self, brings those chain of causes to an end.
A large part of the program prescribed by Buddha involved selflessness in the world. Buddhism represents one of the most humane and advanced moral systems in the ancient world. The first steps on the road to Nirvana were to focus one's actions on doing good to others. In this way one could lose the illusion that one is a unique self. The Buddhist scriptures disapprove of violence, meat-eating, animal sacrifice, and war. Buddha enjoined on his followers four moral imperatives: friendliness, compassion, joy, and equanimity, the "Four Cardinal Virtues."
This is the philosophy that Buddha left the world. In the years following his death, the teachings began to slowly develop into various sects. Buddhism became so fragmented that barely one hundred years after the death of Siddhartha, a council of Buddhists was called to straighten out the differences. The earliest forms of Buddhism, which are now only practiced by a small minority, are called Theravada, or "The Teachings of the Elders."
Buddhism, along with Christianity and Islam, is one of the three major religions in the world. Like Christianity and Islam, it is spread throughout the world but also has a geographical center, Asia, where it predominates. Unlike Christianity and Islam, it has no absolutely fixed canon of scriptural writings—with the exception, of course, of the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the original Buddha—but rather consists of a veritable mountain of writings and teachings; some Buddhists accept all these writings as "canonical," while others enforce a hierarchy on them, while others reject some or most of these writings and teachings. Growing up in a Christian or Jewish community as we have (even if we happen not to be Christian or Jewish), it is hard for us, as Westerners, to comprehend the size and openness of the Buddhist Scriptures; potentially, anybody who achieves enlightenment could add to the canon of the Buddhist scriptures, an idea that most of us, with our ideas of a final and fixed body of religious "scripture," would find alien.
As daunting as the sheer size and number of Buddhist sects and teachings seem for any student approaching it for the first time might be, all Buddhist sects essentially share one set of writings in common: the teachings of the Buddha. Far and away the most crucial of these writings is "The Sermon at Benares", or more standardly, the Dhammacakkappavattanasutra ("The Turning of the Wheel of Dharma"); this sermon is in Buddhist religion what "The Sermon on the Mount" is to the Christian religion: both the first teachings and the most central. The text of this sermon is reproduced in your textbook on page 65. The sayings of the Buddha were extracted out of the stories of Buddha's life to form The Dhammapada, which means "the path of dharma." This book consists of 423 sayings of the Buddha, grouped into 26 categories. One must take the title of the book with utmost seriousness; the sayings of the Buddha were not meant to be a fixed, static, unchanging doctrine, but rather a path which anyone can follow.
Siddhartha Guatama is the young prince who, out of a sense of infinite compassion for the sufferings of humanity, undertook to free humanity from the endless cycles of birth and rebirth (samsara ) and the suffering (duhkha ) incumbent to these cycles. Finding that austerity and absolute asceticism was not the answer, Siddhartha turned to a moderate existence, the "middle way," which formed the basis of meditation into the heart of existence. Meditation released him from all concern for his individual self or ego; at the moment his "self" as a particular, discreet entity faded from existence, he entered into Nirvana, which means "extinction" and is the only escape from the sufferings of the world and the cycles of birth and death. At this point, Siddhartha was buddha , the "awakened one," for he had awakened from the fleetingness of life into the permanence of the divine. Moved by compassion for his fellow human beings, however, he slipped back into the ordinary run of things in order to teach humans how to attain this state of extinction outside of suffering, death, and decay. He came down and delivered the his first sermon in the Deer Park in Benares; this speech was the pivotal moment in human history, the point at which the divine came in contact with the human world, and set off "the wheel of dharma (the path)," which continues to turn until the end of time.
Human beings desire one thing in the thought of the Buddha: pleasure (sukha ). They find instead "suffering" or "pain" (duhkha ). The cause of that suffering is selfishness or self-centeredness (trishna ). If this selfishness and self-centeredness is totally extinguished (nirvana ), then all suffering and pain cease. To extinguish such selfishness and self-centeredness is, however, a long and difficult process. At the foundation of the Buddha's world view and the process of enlightenment or awakening is the idea of karma, which are all the effects which spin out endlessly from previous causes and previous thoughts in this life and the infinity of lives which preceded. What does this mean? If you do or think anything, there will be a reciprocal effect: reward for virtue, or retribution for sin. This reciprocal effect, if it does not appear in this world, will surely appear in some other existence. All that happens to you, all that you think, all that you do, is in some way a reciprocal effect of what has happened to you in the past, what you thought in the past, or what you did in the past. Hence the near impossibility of getting off this endless round of cause and effect; existence becomes this kind of perpetual motion machine. The most important cause in this universe for the Buddhist is thought.
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