Your Neighbors, the Buddhists
The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, was born in the sixth century B.C. in a little principality in the northern part of India, now part of Nepal. The small kingdom was ruled by his father, King Shuddhodana. After being raised in luxury and being married at 19, he saw at the age of 29 four sights that changed his life. Driving to his pleasure-grounds one day, he saw an old broken man along the road; on another outing, he saw a man suffering from a loathsome disease; and on a third occasion, he saw a decomposing corpse. Each time his charioteer driver told him that this is the fate of all human beings. Soon after the third encounter, he saw an ascetic walking in a calm and dignified manner across his path.
He was deeply troubled by these encounters, and one night he felt such an overpowering loathing at his lifestyle that he decided to leave his wife and son and begin a life of solitude with fasting and self-discipline. After a period of intense meditation under a bodhi tree, he received a longed-for enlightenment—he became a Buddha, a person who awakened from ignorance. He also claimed to have achieved the goal of Buddhism, which is nirvana, the liberation from the cycle of rebirth. He spent the rest of his life proclaiming his philosophy of life in India.
Buddha never wrote anything, but his disciples memorized his sermons and teachings and compiled more than 100,000 pages in a Buddhist canon, called Tripitaka (“Three Baskets”). The first one, the Vinaya, contains the rules for the monks and nuns; the second one, the Sutras, comprise the sermons of Buddha; and the last one, the Abhidharma, comprises his teaching. For several centuries after his death in 480 B.C., his sermons and teachings were transmitted orally. Because different oral traditions developed, in 29 B.C., a king in Sri Lanka called for a council of monks. Five hundred monks of the Therevada (“teachings of the elders”) traditions, wrote down their oral traditions in the Pali language, an Indian language related to the dialect that Buddha spoke. The Pali canon is the oldest set of Buddhist scripture. It consists of six volumes of the Vinaya, 36 volumes of the Sutras, and six volumes of the Abhidharma.
In the first century B.C., new sutras appeared in India, written in Sanskrit, the classical language of India, which presented a different picture of Buddha. No longer was he just a man who had found enlightenment; in these new sutras he was a god to be worshiped. These new teachings became known as Mahayana Buddhism, or the Great Vehicle, in contrast to Hinayana, or Lesser Vehicle, that preceded it. In the second century A.D., Buddhist missionaries took some of the Therevada and Mahayana scriptures to China, where they were translated and eventually became the Chinese Buddhist canon. A third canon of Buddhist teaching developed in Tibet in the 14th century.
Growing up in India, Gautama embraced the concept of reincarnation. For him, salvation was the ultimate escape from the cycle of continuous rebirth, reaching nirvana, literally, the “blowing out” of passion and desire. (Sin in Buddhism is all desire in one’s life.) And this has to be done by the person himself or herself. Therefore, there is no concept of a savior in Buddhism. Because ignorance is considered the root of all evil, Buddha sought ways of eliminating ignorance. Having experienced life in luxury and in its opposite, asceticism, he rejected both and chose the Middle Path that bestows understanding and leads to peace, wisdom, and eventually to nirvana.
Foundational to Buddhist teaching (Dharma) are the Four Noble Truths: (1) the truth of universal suffering; (2) the truth that suffering is caused by desire; (3) the truth of the secession of suffering by eliminating desire; (4) the truth of the path that leads to the secession of suffering, which is nirvana.
Nirvana can be understood as the “blowing out” of desire, the “blowing out” of ignorance, or the “blowing out” of life itself. The path to nirvana is divided into eight steps: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. These eight steps can be reduced to three categories: moral conduct, mental attentiveness, and wisdom. Thus, Buddhist laypeople observe five moral rules: no killing, no stealing, no lying, no abuse of sex, and no drinking of intoxicants. Buddhist monks observe five more precepts: (1) they cannot eat when abstinence is in force (after noon); (2) no sleeping in soft beds—the bed must be on the floor; (3) no worldly entertainment; (4) they are not allowed to accept alms of gold or silver; and (5) they must not wear perfume or ornamental attire.
Throughout his long teaching career, Buddha gathered a large community of followers that included monks, nuns, and laypeople. Monks and nuns were and still are dependent on the generosity of the laypeople. While not included in the five moral rules (see above), for laypeople generosity is a fundamental virtue. It makes life for monks and nuns possible and gives laypeople the opportunity to live up to the ideal of renunciation in their own life. This pattern of monasticism, with its circle of lay supporters, has become the basic structure of Buddhist society.
One of the new innovations of the Mahayana tradition was the bodhisattva concept. A bodhisattva is a “Buddha-to-be” or a “future Buddha.” This can be a monk, nun, or layperson who does not attempt to go straight to nirvana but returns to this world to help others along the path. A bodhisattva cultivates wisdom that leads to nirvana and compassion that serves the interests of other beings. One is called Avalokiteshvara, the “Lord Who Looks Down.” Worshipers of this celestial being invoke his compassion by chanting the mantra Om manipadme hum. In China, this bodhisattva is worshiped as the compassionate deity Kuan Yin, pictured as a white-robed female deity, who was particularly associated with the power to grant children. In Tibet under the name Chenrezig, Avalokiteshvara is the patron god of the Tibetan nation, taking the form of a monkey. He is also manifested in the succession of Dalai Lamas.
Another bodhisattva is Maitreya, the Buddah of the future, now residing in a Buddhist heaven. According to Buddhist tradition, Maitreya will appear on earth in the future, achieve complete enlightenment, and teach the pure dharma (doctrine). According to Buddhist scriptures, Maitreya will be a successor to Gautama Buddha. The prophecy of the arrival of Maitreya refers to a time in the future when the dharma will have been forgotten by most on the terrestrial world. A popular image of Maitreya is the fat, laughing Buddah of Chinese tradition.
The Buddah Amitabha (“Immeasurable Light and Life”) is an influential example of a celestial Buddha. According to the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life, Amitābha was, in ancient times, a monk named Dharmakara, or in some versions a former king who, having come into contact with Buddhist teachings, renounced his throne. He then resolved to become a buddha. When he was still a bodhisattva, he vowed that when he became a buddha, he would create a Pure Land or Buddha Land, known as Sukhavati (“Pleasurable”). This Buddha Land exists in the universe outside of ordinary reality, produced by the Buddha’s merits. These resolutions were expressed in his 48 vows, which set out the type of Pure Land he aspired to create, and the conditions under which beings might be born into that world. Amitabha taught that anyone who recollected his name at the point of death would be reborn into this land and receive salvation from the cycle of reincarnation (samsara).
Under the Indian emperor Ashoka the Great (268–232 B.C.), missionaries were sent out to the Middle East, Europe, Sri Lanka, and Burma, and in time gained millions of followers. In the second century A.D., Buddhism entered China at a time when China was suffering from political turmoil and cultural decline. Through its long interaction with Taoism and Confucianism (popular Chinese religions), Buddhism in China took on a distinctly Chinese character, becoming more respectful of duties to the family and their ancestors, more pragmatic and this-worldly, and more consistent with traditional Chinese respect for harmony with nature by balancing yin and yang, the opposite forces in nature. During the T’ang Dynasty (A.D. 618–907), Buddhism became the dominant religion in China.
During the seventh century A.D., Tibetan tribes began to extend their military influence outside of the Tibetan plateau. In this way they encountered the Buddhist cultures in India, Nepal, and China. According to Tibetan tradition, their king Songtsen Gampo (A.D. 609–649) asked one of his two Buddhist wives to help him introduce Buddhism to his people. In a dream he was told that Tibet lay on the body of a demoness who had to be subdued first. For this purpose he built a series of temples to pin down this demoness. A century later, Buddhist monasteries were built that introduced the monastic learning from India. In time, Buddhism became the major religion in Tibet; today about 80 percent of Tibet’s population are Buddhists. Tibetan Buddhism is personified by the figure of the Dalai Lama, literally “Ocean Teacher,” meaning a “teacher spiritually as deep as the ocean.” Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama, is, according to Tibetan Buddhist belief, a reincarnation of a past lama (a venerable guru). He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his peaceful resistance to Chinese rule in Tibet.
Buddhism entered Japan in the sixth century A.D. Three great Buddhist schools developed that have dominated Buddhist life until today: (1) The Pure Land Buddhism, which was introduced to Japan in the 12th century A.D. It relies on the grace of Buddah Amitabha [see above]. (2) The prophetic Buddhism of Nichiren (13th century A.D.), who taught that Japan could be saved only by reliance on the Lotus Sutra, that teaches that all beings have the potential to become Buddhas. (3) Zen Buddhism (13th century A.D.). Zen means “meditation,” and the goal of Zen practice is satori, Japanese for enlightenment. Every person has the capacity to attain this state, meaning that each person is, potentially, a buddha.
Today, countries with Buddhist majorities include Cambodia (98 percent), Thailand (95 percent), Myanmar (88 percent), and Japan (70 percent). China is the country with the largest population of Buddhists, approximately 245 million or 18 percent of its total population. There are more than one million Buddhists in the United States and about 535 million worldwide.*
* Sources: Malcolm D. Eckert, Great World Religions: Buddhism (Chantilly, Va.: The Teaching Company, 2003), 1–77; Grant Hardy, Sacred Texts of the World (Chantilly, Va.: The Teaching Company, 2014), 89–133; L. A. Nichols, G. A. Mather, A. J. Schmidt, eds., “Buddhism,” Encyclopedic Dictionary of Cults, Sects, and World Religions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2006), 40–45.