Buddhism is the religion and philosophy based on the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama (Sanskrit; in Pāli, Siddhattha Gotama), who lived between approximately 563 and 483 BCE. This religion originated in India and 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.

"To shun all evil.
To do good.
To purify one's heart.

This is the teaching of the Buddhas."--Dhammapāda, XIV, 5

Buddhism largely consists of the doing of good action, the avoidance of bad action, and mental training. The aim of these practices is to put an end to suffering and achieve enlightenment; either for one's self, or for all beings. Enlightenment is considered to be touching or abiding in nirvāṇa (Sanskrit; Pali: Nibbāna), which means "extinguishing" or "extinction."

Buddhist morality is guided by principles of non-harm and moderation. Buddhists frequently use formal sitting meditation, and also often chanting and walking meditation. Buddhists use such techniques to try to gain insight into the fundamental operations of human psychology, the causal processes of the world, or both.

While Buddhism does not deny the existence of divinities (and, indeed, many are discussed in Buddhist scripture), it does not ascribe ultimate power, either for creation or salvation, to them. They may, however, be regarded as having some powers to affect worldly events and to aid seekers of enlightenment, and are frequently honored through ritual. Advanced beings (Buddha, Bodhisattvas, etc.) may be regarded as belonging to a similar intermediate class of beings.

What is a Buddha?

Buddha is a word in the ancient Indian languages Pāli and Sanskrit which means "one who has been awakened". It is derived from the verbal root "√budh", meaning "to awaken."

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. (Similarly, "American President" refers not just to one man, but to everyone who has ever held the office of the American presidency). The Buddha 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; Sansrkit: 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.


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 Magadha, in what is now Nepal. His father was a king, and Siddhārtha lived in luxury, being spared all hardship.

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. However, 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. This belief was taken to an extreme in the faith of Jainism. It was thought that by enduring pain and suffering, the ātman (Sanskrit; Pāli: atta}, "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.

Principles of Buddhism

The Three Jewels

Buddhist faith is centered around three core concepts called the Three Jewels or Triple Gem. These are the Buddha (the enlightened teacher), the Dharma (the teaching of the Buddha; therefore, in Buddhist terms, the truth) and the Sangha (the Buddhist community). Every Buddhist vows to take these as their refuge. The Five Precepts can optionally be taken by all Buddhists. Monks and nuns take additional precepts.

The Four noble truths

The Buddha's teaching at his first sermon was that of the four noble truths. These truths were not to be taken as accepted truths, but as truths that could be understood to be truths after careful investigation and reflection.

The Noble Eightfold Path

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:

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 being capable of simultaneous development. However, without right understanding it would not be possible to really develop the other limbs of the path. Correspondingly, from very early on Buddhism took it as a basic premise that ignorance or misunderstanding was the result of all evils.

The Path may be grouped into three sections which correspond to another traditional list known as the three-fold path, or three trainings: wisdom (1,2); morality (3,4,5), consisting of actions of body speech and mind; and concentration or meditation (6,7,8). It may also be divided into vision (1), and transformation (2-8), with 2-4, and 6-8 representing transformation of self, and 5 representing transformation of the world around us through work.

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:

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. Monks and nuns in most countries also vow to follow the 227 patimokkha rules.

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:

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.

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.

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 (saṃsāra).

The Three Vehicles

Buddhism has evolved into myriad schools that can be roughly grouped into three families. The Sanskrit term used for these forms is yāna or vehicles. Each yāna sees itself as representing the true, original teachings of the Buddha, although some schools believe that the dialectic nature of Buddhism allows its format, terminology, and techniques to adapt over time in response to changing circumstances.

The three vehicles include, first, the Hinayāna or "Lesser vehicle". The Hinayana vehicle represents the class of practitioners who seek enlightenment for themselves, and is represented in literature by those teachings that encourage nirvāṇa| rather than Buddhahood.

All traditions accept the Hinayana teachings as being authentic (and they are generally considered to be the earliest). However, 'Hinayana schools' are those schools who recognise solely the Hinayana teachings as authentic. The Theravada school, or "Way of the Elders" is the only surviving Hinayana tradition. Theravada is practiced today in Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, Thailand, and portions of Vietnam and Malaysia.

The second vehicle is the Mahāyāna, or "Great Vehicle", which emphasizes universal compassion and the selfless ideal of the bodhisattva. In addition to the Hinayana scriptures, Mahāyāna schools recognize all or part of a genre of scriptures that were first put in writing around 1 CE. These later scriptures are concerned with the purpose of achieving Buddhahood through following the ten stages of the Bodhisattva'a progress to Buddhahood across three countless aeons of lifetimes; because of the immense time, many Mahāyāna schools accept the idea of working towards rebirth in a Pure Land, where the attainment of enlightenment is much easier. Mahāyana is practiced today in China, Japan, Korea, parts of India, and portions of Vietnam.

The third vehicle is the Vajrayāna or "Diamond Vehicle" (also known as Tantric Buddhism), which, while sharing many of the basic concepts of Mahāyāna, 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 used as an efficient path to Buddhahood. Using these techniques, it is claimed that a practitioner can achieve Buddhahood in as little as three years! In addition to the Hinayāna and Mahāyāna scriptures, Vajrayāna Buddhists recognise a large body of texts that include the Buddhist Tantras. Vajrayana is practiced today mainly in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, areas of India, Kalmykia and, to a limited extent, in China and Japan.

History of the schools

Three months after the passing of Gautama Buddha, The First Council was held by the Sangha. 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 not unlikely 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 BC the Third Council occurred, where small sects called into to question not only the vinaya but the details of the Dharma. The chairman of the Council, Moggaliputta Tissa, compiled a book called the Kathavatthu, which was meant to refute the heretical, false views and theories held by some sects. Moggaliputta's views were of course disputed by his opponents. The version of the scriptures that had been established at the Third Council, including the vinaya and the Abhidhamma commentaries, was taken to Sri Lanka by the son of Emperor Ashoka. There it was eventually committed to writing in the Pali language. The Pali Canon remains the only complete set of Shravakayana scriptures to survive, although fragments of other versions exist.

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

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

Around the 1st century AD, 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 400AD. 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 became the East Asian Zen school. During the first millennium AD, 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 the Theravada school. However, Buddhism there was supplanted by the introduction of Islam around 1000 AD.

Vajrayana also evolved at this stage carried from India to Tibet around 800 AD 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.


The Buddhist canon is distinguished from that of many other major religions in the fact that it is, in principle, an open canon. Since it is a basic tenet of the tradition that anyone may become enlightened, it is also possible for new authoritative sermons to be delivered and recorded. The Buddhist canon of scripture is known in Pāli as the Tipiṭaka and in Sanskrit as the Tripiṭaka. These terms literally mean "three baskets" and refers to the three main divisions of the canon, which are:

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 (Pāli; Sanskrit: Abhidharma 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 and partial English translations 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 and have been compared to the Dead Sea scrolls in importance. Donated to the British Library in 1994, they are now are being studied in a joint project at the University of Washington.

Relations with other faiths

Some Hindus believe that Gautama is the 9th incarnation of Vishnu, and in the religion of Shintoism, he is seen as a Kami. The Baha'i Faith states he was an independent Manifestation of God. Siddhartha Gautama is thought to have been sanctified by the Roman Catholic Church as Saint Josaphat based on a mistaken account of his conversion to Christianity. Some Muslims believe that Gautama Buddha is Dhul-Kifl, one of the prophets mentioned in the Qur'an.

Buddhism in the modern world

According to statistics from adherents.com, estimates of the number of Buddhists vary between 230 and 500 million, with 350 million as the most commonly cited figure.

Modern Asia

In northern Asia, Mahāyāna remains the most common form of Buddhism in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Theravāda predominates in most of Southeast Asia, including Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, as well as Sri Lanka. Vajrayāna is predominant in Tibet, Mongolia, and portions of India.

While in the West, Buddhism is often seen an as exotic and progressive, in the East, Buddhism is regarded as familiar and part of the establishment. Buddhist organizations in Asia frequently are well-funded and enjoy support from the wealthy and influential. In some cases, this has led critics to charge that certain monks and organizations are too closely associated with powerful and are neglecting their duties to the poor.

Buddhism and the West

In the latter half of the 1800's, Buddhism (along with many other of the world's religions and philosophies) came to the attention of Western intellectuals. These included the pessimistic German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who translated a Buddhist sutra from French into English. Spiritual enthusiasts enjoyed what they saw as the exotic and mystical tone of the Asian traditions. At first Western Buddhology was hampered by poor translations (often translations of translations), but soon Western scholars began to learn Asian languages and translate Asian texts. In 1899 Gordon Douglas became the first Westerner to be ordained as a Buddhist monk.

The first Buddhists to arrive in the United States were Chinese. Hired as cheap labor for the railroads and other expanding industries, they established temples in their settlements along the rail lines.

The cultural re-evaluations of the hippie generation in the late 1960s and early 1970s included a renewed interest in Buddhism, proclaimed by some of them as a natural path to awareness, and enlightenment. Many people, including celebrities, traveled to Asia in pursuit of gurus and ancient wisdom. Buddhism had become the fastest growing religion in Australia and many other Western nations by the 1990's, in contrast to the steady decline of traditional western beliefs (see Christianity).

A distinctive feature of Buddhism in the West has been the emergence of groups that, while drawing on traditional Buddhism, attempt to create a new form of non-sectarian Buddhist practice. Examples include the Shambala movement, founded by Chögyam_Trungpa, and the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, founded by Sangharakshita. ? 2004

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