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General Essay on Buddhism
Life of the Buddha
Buddhism arose in northern India in the 6th century BCE. The historical founder of Buddhism, Siddharta Gautama (c.560-480 BCE) was born in a village called Lumbini into a warrior tribe called the Sakyas (from where he derived the title Sakyamuni, meaning ‘Sage of the Sakyas’). According to tradition Gautama’s father, Suddhodana was the king of a small principality based on the town of Kapilavastu. His mother, Queen Maya, died seven days after Gautama’s birth. Following the death of Maya, Suddhodana married Maya’s sister, Prajapati, by whom Gautama was brought up in great luxury and sheltered from the harshness of the outside world.
At sixteen the prince married Yasodhara. Yasodhara bore him a son whom he called Rahula (meaning “chain” or “fetter”), a name that indicated Gautama’s sense of dissatisfaction with his life of luxury. His apparent sense of dissatisfaction turned to disillusion when he saw three things from the window of his palace, each of which represented different forms human suffering: a decrepit old man, a diseased man, and a corpse.
So traumatised was Siddharta by his new found awareness of the transience of pleasure and the universality of suffering, that he decided to embark on a life dedicated to true knowledge. Inspired by the example of a mendicant monk, Siddharta abandoned his family and life as a prince, cut off his hair and adopted the lifestyle of a wanderer.
Siddharta began his spiritual quest under the guidance of two teachers who showed him how to reach very deep states of meditation (samadhi). This did not, however, lead to a sense of true knowledge or peace, and the practice of deep meditation was abandoned in favour of a life of extreme asceticism which he shared with five companions. But again, after five or six years, of self-mortification, Siddharta felt he had failed to achieve true insight and rejected such practices as dangerous and useless.
Resolved to continue his quest, Siddharta made his way to a deer park at Isipatana, near present day Benares. Here he sat beneath a tree meditating on death and rebirth. It was here that Siddharta attained a knowledge of the way things really are; it was through this knowledge that he acquired the title ‘Buddha’ (meaning ‘awakened one’). This awakening was achieved during a night of meditation, which passed through various stages. In the first stage he saw each of his previous existences. In the second he surveyed the death and rebirth of all living beings and understood the law that governs the cycle of birth and death. In the third he identified the four noble truths: the universality of suffering, the cause of suffering through selfish desire, the solution to suffering and the way to overcome suffering. This final point is called the Noble Eightfold Path, this being eight steps consisting of wisdom (right views, right intention) ethics (right speech, right action, right livelihood), mental discipline (right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration), which ultimately lead to liberation from the source of suffering.
Although initially hesitant to share his insight on the grounds that humanity might not be ready for such a teaching, the Buddha decided to communicate his discovery to those willing to listen. His first converts were the five ascetics with whom he had lived when he himself followed the lifestyle of the ascetic. To these he preached his first sermon in the Deer Park at Benares, outlining to them the Four Noble Truths. Out of this small group the community of monks (or sangha) grew to about sixty in size and included Buddha’s cousin, Ananda, and his son, Rahula. Later the Buddha was persuaded by his step-mother and cousin to accept women into the sangha.
The remaining forty-five years of the Buddha’s life were spent journeying around the plain of the Ganges, teaching and receiving visitors. At the age of 79 the Buddha fell seriously ill and died. During his life the Buddha had taught that no one was to succeed him as leader of the Sangha. Instead, his followers were to take his teaching and rule as their sole guides.
Councils and Early Schisms in the Community
Following the Buddha’s death, his teachings were gathered together at the first Buddhist council, which is said to have taken place at Rajagrha shortly after the Buddha’s Final Nirvana.
A second council, which is said to have taken place a century after the Buddha’s death, took place at Vaisali. The purpose of this council was to consider allegations that certain monks at Vaisali permitted ten practices that contravened the rules of conduct of the Vinaya. The Vaisali Council condemned these practices, after which the Council was closed.
At some point following the Second Council the Sangha divided into two traditions: the Sthaviravadins (‘Elders’) and the Mahasanghikas (‘the great Sangha’). The difference between the two traditions seems to relate to their perception of the status of the layperson and the status of the arhant. Whereas the Mahasanghikas were more open to the laity practising Buddhism and tended to believe that the lay person was capable of becoming an arhant, the Sthaviravadins believed that monastic life alone could lead to arahantship and, therefore, nirvana.
Sometime in the 3rd century B.C.E. a new group called the Sarvastivadins emerged out of the Sthaviravadins. The name “Sarvastivadin” is believed to derive from the phrase sarva asti (everything exists). The Sarvastivadins taught that the dharmas, the most basic elements of existence, exist in the past, present and future which are simply modes of being. The growth of this movement led King Asoka, of the Maurya dynasty, to call the third Buddhist Council at Pataliputra (c. 250 BCE) which decided against the teachings of the Sarvastivadins. This decision prompted some of them to emigrate to north India and establish a center in Kashmir where they survived for about a thousand years.
Another group that emerged in the 3rd century B.C.E. were the Pudgalavadins, who derive their name from the word pudgala, meaning ‘person’. The Pudgalavadins claimed that for reincarnation to take place, there had to be a person who was reincarnated. This view was criticised by other Buddhist sects who said that Pudgalavadin teaching implied the reality of a self and, therefore, contradicted the basic Buddhist teaching of anatman (no self).
Those Sthaviravadins who did not accept the doctrines of either the Sarvastivadins or the Pudgalavadins came to be called Vibhajyadins (‘Distinctionists’). This group formed a
number of branches, of which the largest and most important were the Theravadins of Ceylon.
The sacred text for the Theravadins of Ceylon and for those throughout south-east Asia is the Tripitaka (‘Three Baskets’). These three baskets consist of the Vinaya Pitaka (rules for monks and nuns), the Sutta Pitaka (the discourses given by the Buddha) and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (the systematic ordering and analysis of Buddhist doctrine). Accompanying the Tripitaka was a large body of commentarial literature explaining in detail the meaning of particular sutras.
Early Mahayana Buddhism
At about the beginning of the common era there appeared texts which did not belong to the Tripitaka of the early schools (in so far as the Tripitaka existed at this time). The movement associated with these texts came over time to call itself the Mahayana (‘Great Vehicle’) in contrast to non-Mahayana schools, which were pejoratively named Hinayana (‘Lesser Vehicle’). In India Mahayana Buddhism developed through a number of stages. Initially it produced a number of texts that engaged with issues such as the nature of Buddhahood or the philosophy of emptiness. Later identifiable schools such as Madhyamaka and Yogacara emerged. Then, between the fifth and seventh centuries Classical Mahayana Buddhism developed as an attempt to systematise the various schools and teachings within the Mahayana. Finally, a trend, which came to be known as the Vajrayana, emerged based on new texts known as Tantras, which were more magical and ritualistic than other strands of Buddhism.
Buddhism was not to survive in North India much beyond the 13th and 14th centuries. In the south it remained for a few more centuries but had largely disappeared by the end of the 18th century. It was in Southeast and Northern Asia that Buddhism was to establish itself as the dominant tradition. The Buddhism of Southeast Asia is largely Theraravadin. When Buddhism came to Southeast Asia is unknown. Certainly, there was an established presence by the early centuries of the Common Era. Archaeological and inscriptional evidence indicates the presence of southern Buddhism in Central Burma by the fifth century C.E. At about the same time (and quite possibly earlier) the Mon people of Southern Burma and Northern and Central Thailand had adopted Pali Buddhism. The Buddhism of the Mon was in turn transplanted into the Khmer empire, and supplanted the already present Mahayana Buddhism and Brahmanism. From both the Mon and the Khmer Southern Buddhism was adopted by the Tai peoples, whose principalities emerged in regions now occupied by parts of modern day Thailand, Burma and Laos.
Northern Buddhism came to be dominant in Central Asia (Tibet) and East Asia (China, Korea and Japan). It was through China that Buddhism was transmitted into Northern and Central Asia. Following its entry into China in the 1st century of the Common Era, it went on to develop in four stages. Up to the 4th century Buddhism gradually spread into China from Central Asia as Mahayana sutras were translated into Chinese and Indian schools established themselves. During this period Buddhism remained largely a fringe religion. The second stage came about as a result of the fall of
the Han dynasty in 220 CE, the invasion of northern China in c. 320 CE and the flight of the royal court to the south. In the northern foreign occupied part of the country Buddhism’s status as a foreign religion ceased to be problematic; in the south Buddhism received support from the educated classes with the consequence that distinctively Chinese forms of Buddhism began to emerge. The third period is represented by the reunion of the country under the Sui and T’ang dynasties. Unification allowed for new transmissions of Buddhism into the country while also fostering the cultivation of indigenous forms of Chinese Buddhism such as T’ien T’ai, Hua-Yen, Ch’an and Ching-Tu. The fourth stage began with the persecution of Buddhism in the 9th century. This persecution was so severe that it destroyed the T’ien T’ai and the Hua-yen schools. Later dynasties gave periodic support to various strands of Buddhism. Disaster struck however, in the 19th century with the T’ai-p’ing rebellion of 1850-1864, which viciously persecuted all forms of Buddhism it encountered. Buddhism enjoyed a brief reprieve under the Nationalist regime, but with the ascendancy of communism in 1949 many monasteries were closed down and Buddhist clergy were forced to return to lay status.
Buddhism arrived in Korea from China towards the end of the 4th century. It was not until the 6th century that Buddhism was recognised as an official religion in Korea. This official religion paved the way for Korean monks to visit China in the 6th and 7th centuries and to introduce into Korea various major schools of Chinese Buddhism. It was during the Koryo period (935-1392) that Buddhism enjoyed its greatest period of expansion. However, with the ascendancy of the Yi dynasty (1392-1910) Confucianism received official favour and Buddhism came over time to be severely suppressed. Such was the degree of suppression that by the 19th century Son (Ch’an) Buddhism remained the only dominant school in the Sangha. Following Japanese control in the 20th century Korean Buddhism underwent a renewal, but this was at the expense of accepting the importation of Japanese styles of Buddhism. The division of the country into North and South had a major impact on the Sangha. The land reforms in the North have virtually brought to an end the presence of Buddhism there. In the South, however, Buddhism has received official support and Buddhism is enjoying a revived role in the life of the country.
Buddhism was introduced into Japan from Korea in the 6th century in the form of gifts sent by Korean kings to the Japanese imperial court. During the 7th century Buddhism was integrated into the state apparatus through the support of a series of Buddhist emperors. The close relationship between the court and Buddhism has meant that periods of Buddhist history are identified by the location of the capital city at a particular period of the country’s history. Between 710 and 794 the capital was located at Nara. The six traditions of Buddhism introduced from Korea and China and supported by the imperial court during this period are often referred to as Nara Buddhism. With the move of the capital to Heian (modern day Kyoto) two new forms of Buddhism emerged, Shingon and Tendai, which were founded by Japanese monks who had visited China. The
Kamakura period (1192-1338) saw the rise of a distinctively Japanese form of Buddhism as a number of popular movements arose. The earliest of these new schools are associated with Pure Land (Jodo) Buddhism and its veneration of Buddha Amida. Another important sect was founded by Nichiren (122-1282) who identified true Buddhism with the Sakyamuni Buddha of the Lotus Sutra. The medieval expansion of Buddhism was curtailed in the 14th – 16th centuries by the outbreak of national unrest and the subsequent destruction of a number of major centres of Buddhism. Buddhism suffered further as a consequence of the establishment of military rule in the 17th century and the concomitant complete cultural isolation imposed on Japan by its military rulers. The situation changed with the emergence of the Meiji dynasty in 1867, the acceptance of Shinto as the official state religion and brief persecution of Buddhism. In the 20th century Buddhism has become open to the rest of the world. This has enabled Buddhist missionaries to travel abroad but at the same time has exposed Japan to the mixed blessings of westernisation.
Buddhism entered Tibet surprisingly late. Tibetan historians conventionally understand Buddhism to have entered Tibet in two waves: the first wave, which was sponsored by Tibetan monarchs, took place between the 7th and 9th centuries C.E., and the second wave occurred in the 10th century as a result of Tibetans travelling to India for religious education. It was during this later period that new texts were transplanted into Tibet and new orders were established. These orders are not based on distinct doctrines but derive from lineages associated with early Buddhist masters (known as lamas).
Buddhism in the West
In the 20th century Buddhism has spread well beyond its Asian origins and has become a global religion. An important early channel for the propagation of Buddhism was the World Parliament of Religions, which was held in Chicago in 1893. Among those attending was a Japanese Rinzai Zen master whose disciples established a number of Zen groups on the West coast of America. Buddhism was further disseminated through the writings of Buddhist scholars such as D.T. Suzuki in the United States and Christmas Humphries and Edward Conze in the United Kingdom. In the 1950s and 1960s the study of Buddhism became an integral part of higher education through the establishment of Religious Studies or Asian Studies departments. The establishment of Buddhist temples and centres for European and American converts or Asian immigrants has further strengthened the presence of Buddhism in the West.